Robbie Collin on the new ‘war masterpiece’
‘Dunkirk is every inch a British film, with no detectable concessions to the international market’
Of the many things that stun and convulse you in
Dunkirk, the smallest might have the most lasting impact. Early on, as the camera surveys the British soldiers stood along the French shoreline in thin, straggling columns, one thought – they’re so young – jams in your head like a door stop, and gets driven in harder with every passing minute.
Christopher Nolan’s astonishing film, about the Allied evacuation of occupied France in 1940, is a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur that demands to be seen on the best and biggest screen. But its spectacle doesn’t stop at the recreations of wartime combat.
Like all great war films, it is every bit as transfixing up close: at the wheels of the civilian boats scudding across the Channel, inside the cockpits of the fighter planes tearing overhead, and most of all on the beach, with those uniformed boys barely out of their teens, wrestling with the strange notion of defeat with honour even as they fight for their lives.
The land, sea and air strands of the story unspool simultaneously, even though each one spans a different period of time. It is one week for Fionn Whitehead’s pointedly named Tommy – as in Atkins, presumably – and the other common troops huddled on the beach; one day for the civilian sailors, like Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, his teenage son (Tom Glynn-carney) and his school friend (Barry Keoghan) sailing from the English coast to Dunkirk; and one hour for Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s Spitfire pilots, thinning out the Messerschmitts that dart and dive overhead like buzzards scenting blood. (In an unnerving piece of streamlining, the film keeps the enemy troops themselves almost entirely out of sight: they’re only present as falling propaganda sheets, swooping aircraft, bombs and bullets.)
It’s a structural device that sounds confusing on paper but is creamily intuitive in practice, creating an unshakeable sense that these scattered events are somehow driving towards a single pivotal historical moment.
It’s also about as self-consciously “clever” as Dunkirk gets: the film is so differently ambitious from Nolan’s earlier work, it makes you wonder where on earth he’ll go next. (Please God, not Bond.) There’s arguably something of the Inception spinning top to the juxtaposition of two images that ends the film – about which I’ll say no more here, other than it may be the single most haunting cut in Nolan’s filmography to date. But the questions it poses, about the actual substance and significance of the British “Dunkirk spirit”, both then and now, are asked in total seriousness.
And Dunkirk is every inch a British film, with no detectable concessions to the international market. There isn’t, for instance, the commercially fortunate presence of an American face among the cast – although there is a bright and unexpectedly not-at-all-jarring performance from Harry Styles, formerly of the boy band One Direction, as one of the young soldiers on the beach.
Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh also appear in prominent, true-to-type supporting roles. But a couple of context-setting spiels are as close as things come to the swelling rhetoric that the presence of Branagh – or Hardy, or Rylance, for that matter – might lead you to expect. Amid the moment-to-moment heroism and struggle for survival in Dunkirk, the dialogue is sparse and functional at most: think barked orders, cries for help, stoic radio chatter as tracer fire whistles past canopies.
You could describe Dunkirk as a silent film at heart – and the superb Hans Zimmer score, battering, surging, metronomically counting off the seconds, is such a constant presence, it is more or less an accompaniment. Yet there’s also something rivetingly present-tense about it all: the period detail is meticulous but never fawned over, the landscapes as crisp as if you were standing on them, the prestige-cinema glow turned off at the socket.
At one point, when the British soldiers are strafed by the Luftwaffe, Tommy throws himself on the sand, and huge geysers of sand rush up into the air behind him, closer and closer, until the debris beats down on his head like hailstones. It’s an indelible shot that takes on an extra waking-dream lucidity in Nolan’s preferred field-of-vision-flooding IMAX format.
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, that double-bill of masterpieces from 1998, rewrote the rules of engagement between cinema and war, and changed the way many of us think about both.
Dunkirk is as unlike those films as they are each other, but all three fall into a tradition of capturing real, enormous horrors at intimate quarters that can be traced as far back as Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet On the Western Front (1930). That task – perhaps more than any other in cinema – takes a filmmaker at the peak of their powers. This is the work of one.
Troops evacuated from France wade out to a little ship in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Above, Harry Styles of One Direction offers a ‘bright’ performance