The most striking thing about Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the speed at which the mundanity of war becomes the horror of war. The opening scene follows a group of soldiers as they mooch listlessly through the ghost-town of Dunkirk, which is now well and truly surrounded by Nazi forces. Then, with frightening spontaneity, gunfire breaks the silence. Suddenly everyone is running, confused, terrified, and the men – “boys” would be more accurate – who moments earlier had been bored, are now dead.
This sudden disruption of quiet by moments of shuddering violence occurs again and again, imbuing each one of Dunkirk’s 106 minutes with stomach-knotting tension. Soldiers stand in endless snaking queues, waiting for the German Messerschmitt planes to shriek through the sky, their bombs rattling the ground, sending sand and bodies mushrooming into the air. Then the silence returns and the survivors return to their queues.
There is little narrative and virtually no dialogue. We follow young infantryman Tommy as he attempts to return home on the flotilla of civilian vessels – pleasure yachts and fishing boats – that were commandeered by the navy to evacuate what remained of the British troops.
Nolan masterfully puts us in the position of these men, who only ever see the war in short, sharp bursts, the bigger picture remaining utterly unfathomable. Tommy moves as if in a nightmare, each attempt to join the ships home violently thwarted, every exit blocked.
Tommy’s story is intertwined with three other fragments of the vast Dunkirk operation: Tom Hardy’s overstretched RAF pilot Farrier is tasked with protecting the Navy destroyers from aerial attack; Kenneth Branagh’s stoic Naval officer bravely – and vainly – attempts to minimise the inevitable losses; Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, the captain of a tiny private boat, sails from Blighty into the smoking hell visible on the horizon. Much pre-release hype focused on Harry Styles’ acting debut, and perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay him is that you soon forget he’s there; blending in alongside Branagh, Hardy and Rylance is praise indeed.
Nolan ensures there’s no grandstanding, no scene stealing, just plausible portrayals of men pushed to the brink. Their bravery isn’t fetishised, these are ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things just to survive. Dunkirk was no glorious victory – if such a thing even exists in war – it was an exercise in damage limitation, in living to fight another day.
That’s not to say Nolan’s movie isn’t spectacular. From the airborne gymnastics of the Spitfires to the suffocating underwater scenes as men escape sinking ships, there’s a big-screen swagger to Dunkirk, recalling the vast studio system movies from Hollywood’s heyday. It’s packed with hundreds of extras, outrageous set-pieces, stunning cinematography and immaculate period details, all perfectly complemented by the unmistakeable braaaaaaaap of Hans Zimmer’s score, which pulses menacingly throughout, roaring into a terrifying crescendo during the action sequences.
After the mixed reaction to Nolan’s time-travelling space odyssey Interstellar, he’s reined in any sign of philosophical excess to present his most tightly coiled, confident work to date. Dunkirk is a film of rare brilliance, unlikely to be bettered this year.
First published in City A.M.