In addition to the deserved, near unanimous acclaim heaped upon Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, it will also be remembered as one of the rare, great plural protagonist films. Like Sergei Eistenstein’s Potemkin and Paul Greengrass’s United 93, the main character is not any one person but a collective – in this case, the British Army.
Said collective is represented by various people in various timelines during the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II. On the ground, over a week, we follow a British private, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), desperately trying to escape from France. On the sea, over a day, we follow a civilian boat seconded by the Navy, captained by a Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance). In the air, over an hour, we follow the fortunes of air force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), whose eyes have to do all the acting (which they do, quite brilliantly).
In typical Nolan style, these non-linear timelines intercut and intersect in a clever but not distracting way. Along the way other familiar faces turn up, including Cillian Murphy (credited as “Shivering Soldier”), Kenneth Branagh (whose turn as Commander Bolton is the closest thing the film has to any form of Basil Exposition), and even pop star Harry Styles of One Direction fame, who actually turns in a quite remarkable performance. We learn very indeed about any of these people, but we don’t need to as their actions, whether heroic, cowardly or merely desperate, speak for themselves. Besides, this is a story about one thing: survival.
Despite the size and scale of the film, Dunkirk is actually a surprisingly stripped down piece of pure cinema; served very lean at a mere 107 minutes, with spare, minimal dialogue. By ruthlessly trimming away the fat, Nolan eschews all the usual genre clichés and assumes his viewers are intelligent people that have actually read a history book. There are no scenes with the Admiralty moving models on maps and no scenes of Churchill furrowing his brow in Whitehall. No explanation of the broader context is required.
There is also none of the gore found in movies like Saving Private Ryan. Nor does there need to be. The visceral terror of being shot at whilst running for your life, or being bombed like sitting ducks on a beach, or being torpedoed and drowning, is depicted so harrowingly, and with such skill, that blood and guts would have been a pointless (albeit authentic) afterthought.
Nolan’s insistence on shooting real locations with real boats, ships, spitfires and so forth adds tremendous realism in an age when CGI has all but killed genuine cinematic spectacle. I also give him full marks for not only shooting on 70mm film, but insisting that it be projected that way too, or on 35mm, wherever possible. Nolan belongs to a dying breed of properly old-school film directors, having no truck whatsoever with this digital nonsense. Whilst some dismiss his attitudes as Luddite (especially his recent remarks about Netflix – entirely justified in my view), I salute him, purely because every now and then we really do need the cinematic equivalent of a vinyl junkie.
Much of the credit must also go to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Lee Smith’s editing, and the phenomenal work done by the sound department. On top of all this, Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary music, which builds from the tense percussion of a ticking clock, eventually fusing into the heroic strains of Elgar’s Nimrod, deserves a special mention. It might be his greatest score to date.
Dunkirk doesn’t merely resonate on a technical level. Not only is it a singular work with Nolan’s unmistakeable stamp (quite different to Leslie Norman’s 1958 take on the story), it is also a profoundly spiritual film that shows unsparingly (but without judgement) what happens to humans under pressure, both good and bad. Dunkirk was a disaster, but also a miracle and a defining moment in the British psyche that remains deep within our blood as a nation, despite many changes throughout the decades. I defy any Brit not to feel stirred by the closing moments, as Churchill’s famous “We shall never surrender” speech is read aloud – not by Churchill, but by a British soldier reading from a newspaper.
In summary, Dunkirk deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible with the best possible sound system. I need to see it again, but I suspect it might be the best film of the year, and a guaranteed contender at next year’s Oscars. Nolan should have won at least twice before, so here’s hoping for a third time lucky.