After the disappointment of Inception and the incredible arrogance of Interstellar, it was by no means certain that we would automatically troop off to the cinema to watch the latest Christopher Nolan film. I can’t express how heartened I was when I heard that its running time is only around an hour and forty minutes, meaning that it isn’t the overbearing epic that is typical of his more recent work. After that the excellent reviews and the recommendations of Broken Forum members was enough to get to watch it in an IMAX cinema.
Tommy, a young British soldier, fleeing with the rest of the army arrives in Dunkirk where an evacuation is being carried out. He joins up with a curiously silent fellow soldier Gibson and they manage to sneak aboard a ship by carrying another wounded man on a stretcher. However a torpedo hits the ship just as it gets underway and the two barely survive. Meanwhile, across the channel, the British authorities are commandeering civilians ships to aid in the evacuation effort. Dawson, the owner of one such boat, complies but decides to captain his ship himself instead of handing his boat over and sets off with his son and a young deckhand. In the skies, two pilots, Farrier and Collins, are sent to provide air support. Due to the distance involved and hence fuel limitations, they have only a very limited flying time available for actual combat. The three narratives are shown in parallel though they take place across very different time frames.
One of my favorite things about this film is how it presents the events at Dunkirk with little fanfare and no sentimentality. There are no bonding moments, no scenes in which the soldiers stare longingly at lockets or write letters or talk to each other about their families. The closest thing you get is when Tommy and his companions look on in silence as another soldier gives up and walks into the ocean. There are small moments of relief, such as when they grab some pieces of bread and jam on the ship, but the overall effect for the beach scenes is of unrelenting dread as death draws closer every minutes as they remain trapped on the beach. The grim determination of Dawson and the pilots shine through equally clearly as they each do their best to save as many as they can. This is a film about a military defeat and hence merely surviving is valorous enough.
In fact, Dunkirk is so laser focused on the perils faced by the British soldiers that it avoids all other distractions. For example, it shies away from showing the French forces who must be heroically maintaining the perimeter around the beach. It never shows the faces of the Germans so there’s no chance of the film demonizing them. Part of this must surely be due to Nolan’s insistence that the audience sees the events only from the perspective of these particular characters who would have no reason to see such scenes. The fact that there is no God’s eye view of the situation is also why the scenes look smaller in scale and feel less epic that it really must have been. But I think it’s also because Nolan wanted the film’s messaging to be pure and simple. The result is a tight film that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do but I think it is also fair to remark on how narrow and straightforward. There’s no room for subtlety or ambiguity here which seems a tad unambitious.
Overall Dunkirk does get my approval. Watching it is exactly the kind of rush that Nolan must have envisioned, heightened by experiencing it in an IMAX cinema. It plays to the director’s strengths as a great technical director and a master of visual storytelling but a bad ear for good dialogue. It also makes for a laudable back to basics palate cleanser for a very talented filmmaker who has gone a bit too far off the rails recently with big budget productions. I would suggest however that critics who call this Nolan’s best film ever are delusional and have forgotten the films that made him famous in the first place. Films such as Memento and The Prestige were not only technically perfect, they were also complex and philosophically ambitious while being coherent throughout. Going back to that quality of work would be a true return to form.