Other films have portrayed the 1940 Battle of Dunkirk before. The two most recent ones, and thus the ones I’ve seen, are from Atonement and Their Finest. I like one and dislike the other. Both films treat the battle as a disastrous footnote to personal stories of grave sin or great resilience. Which is fine, since most people have heard about the battle rather than have lived through it. Although it’s as if tackling the event itself was too daunting for most filmmakers. Enter Christopher Nolan, a man that Hollywood trusts to define a battle that presents the contradictions inherent in war.
This movie is loud. Dunkirk begins with relentless volume, with Hanz Zimmer’s score that features his own ticking clock. It’s an obvious metaphor but an effective one. This sound comes and goes in between the whizzing Gerry aircraft. Flying by, they pick out which Allied soldiers to assault on the beach during that warm summer. And the bombs they delivered shook the IMAX theatre like nothing before it. Among other things I mentioned previously, Nolan recently has also become a ‘musical’ director. What interests him are the rhythm and the movement in his film. I can compare Inception flowing like a ballet dancer. But Dunkirk‘s bombs and bullets boom like an anxious but thrilling heartbeat.
Hoyte von Hoytema’s cinematography, on the other hand, adds a cool polish to the proceedings. Death is not just a threat but an omnipresent reality in this war, just like any other war. But instead of vulgarly showing death, the film does so through impressionistic ways. A hand reaching out from the sand. Allied forces fishing out bodies floating on water, helmets line up on the beach. There’s also an intimate, journalistic air to the camera during the opening scenes. It follows individual soldiers as they scavenge through the seaside city’s abandoned houses. Eventually, they’re step by step with some of them, keeping pace as they survive gunfire. The general approach thankfully differs from the distance that the camera has in other ‘grand’ war films.
One of the scavengers that the film follows is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). He chances upon a silently mysterious fellow private Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) burying another private. They eventually rescue a wounded private into a destroyer. And when that destroyer sinks, they reach their arms out for another soldier, Alex (Harry Styles). That trio belong to an interweaving section of the film called ‘The Mole’ where they move around the beach. There’s a slight trickster-like air to their segments, the audience wondering if Harry Styles is on the boat. But it also indicates the messiness of survival. That it was a time where both soldiers and refugees try their luck more than once. That a space like Dunkirk has both its exits and its limits.
On the other side of the beach is a colonel (Kenneth Branagh) and another officer (James D’Arcy). They comment on the proceedings, the only two knowing about the battalions’ predicament. In ‘The Air,’ there are two of a handful of fighter pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden). They try to take down German aircraft that are trying to take down the destroyers.
There’s also drama on the other side of the English Channel, the segment called ‘The Sea’. A boy, Peter, (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend George (Barry Keoghan) help the former’s father Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sail across. They hope that their little vacation yacht can smuggle some sailors out of Dunkirk and into home. They’re schoolboys too young to even lie their way into the army, yet they’re helping. Boys and men like them made history, and by looking at them Nolan made a memorable, monumental film.