It is resilience that defines Dunkirk — the resilience of the stranded soldiers, of the civilian sailors leaving home, and of the Air Force taking to the skies. The call of the broken, the vulnerable, is answered by those dedicated and determined. Director Christopher Nolan’s latest outing is not only his least fictional, but his most ambitious, presenting a stripped down, visceral retelling of the Allies’ effort to evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.
The film sets out its intentions early on: it is an attempt to cover all facets of the Dunkirk evacuations, and present a definitive account of a pivotal moment in the Second World War. Although narrative was clearly not the main focus of the film, it manages to maintain some semblance of a plot.
Told in a non-linear structure, we follow three stories all beginning at different times. We watch the stranded British soldiers brave constant aerial bombardment in a vignette set one week before the arrival of their saviours; the civilian sailors, the unlikely liberators, as they leave home one day prior to their arrival; and the Air Force, who set out to provide invaluable protection against bombers targeting the fleeing vessels, as they traverse the Channel in the hour leading up to the key moment.
Really, not a lot can be said about the plot of Dunkirk. As a war film, it relies more on the pre-established importance of the events it’s depicting; Nolan has clearly made it his priority to capture the spectacle instead of trying to carve out a narrative typical of the genre, providing no specific reason as to why anything depicted on screen is important to us as viewers outside of our own cultural understanding. Nolan understands the type of film he’s making, but at times, his commitment seemingly wavers.
As the Allied soldiers line up on the beaches, awaiting their departure, a Nazi fighter plane begins its descent. The screeching sound of the engines and what feels like an infinite barrage of bullets tear apart the soldiers as they brace on the ground and pray they survive. Sand is kicked up and the camera shudders as bombs, loud enough to shake the very Earth, manage to do all but break the soldiers’ morale in what is, for some reason, a bloodless sequence. It may seem like an odd complaint, but Nolan’s decision to not adopt the same approach to visceral combat as the more violent war films do ultimately leaves Dunkirk feeling a little hollow.
Fortunately, the film recovers, and succeeds overall in capturing the very essence of the monumental days it depicts. Although some otherwise impactful blows are dulled, by no means does it feel incomplete. It is stripped of the typical hyperbole that clutters a vast amount of war films. It demonstrates an unwavering appreciation for the smallest of triumphs, succeeding immensely in accessing quite an intimate and unique sense of patriotism. Nolan has created a touching homage to the undeterrable strength of equally unbreakable resilience and of resolute determination that will undoubtedly stand the test of time. In many ways, this is blockbuster cinema at its very finest – its loudest, yet its most delicate.
Nolan has certainly stepped back to take a broader look at the bigger picture (with the help of immaculate camerawork that, in itself, is a defence of the majesty of IMAX cameras,) and in doing so has sacrificed the more direct, wholesome intimacy of distinct characters in what is the film’s greatest flaw.
Across the three separate storylines, we follow roughly eight characters of equal importance. Considering the film’s relatively modest run-time (for a war film,) it’s no surprise that the characterisation of our leads falls short. Unfortunately, the audience feels no meaningful connection with the individual efforts of our heroes, and the conclusion of certain character arcs lack a genuinely satisfying climax.
But, for all of the accompanying issues, such lack of personal empathy doesn’t entirely work against the film’s favour. They may not feel fleshed out, but they certainly manage to embellish and, crucially, humanise the film. Not all the characters have a distinctive personality – with Tom Hardy, the mumbling pilot, essentially being a blank-canvas action-hero stand-in to put a face to the fierce aerial combat – and your interest in their endeavours may falter, but they succeed in driving home the true, unfathomable magnitude of those dark days.
Of course, one can look at the character situation in one of two ways: poorly-written and underdeveloped characters, or as brush-strokes that embellish the atmosphere and scale of the film in place of having more concrete and interesting personalities. Whilst it may drag the film down, one can’t go so far as to say it ruins the experience.
Nolan has certainly made some interesting stylistic choices. The non-linear structure in particular leaves the film feeling confidently unique and rewards multiple viewings, even if it becomes muddied and gradually less clear as we see the same event from different perspectives, told in the wrong order. Dunkirk is never hard to follow by any means, but underneath the layers of singular events lies a more contained, focused – and perhaps more enjoyable – film.
Dunkirk’s greatest attributes indeed lie in its technique, and not in its narrative. At its core is something genuinely intimate and profoundly triumphant, even if its delicacy may seem, at times, difficult to find, caught up in the near-deafening roars of engines and bullets.
by Sebastian Mann
Dunkirk will be showing at the Gulbenkian from this Friday 18th – Tuesday 22nd August 2017