In the spring of 1940 on the shores of France, hundreds of thousands of troops were stranded with the German army rapidly advancing and no resources left to fight. The British commandeered as many local boats and ships as they could and sent them across the English Channel to rescue the armies from the small French village of Dunkirk. It took 9 days to complete the evacuation with the Germans attacking periodically throughout the attempt. This is the story that Christopher Nolan chooses to tell in his seventh outing as writer and director. Dunkirk is not about its characters; instead, it is a story about a shared experience. We follow multiple storylines and several people throughout the course of the film, and we see the different struggles and dangers faced by the various arms of the British forces.
The film focuses on three places, first among them the beach where the army is organizing for the rescue attempt, led by Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh). Second, in the cold waters of the English Channel is the boat of Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), an older man who neglected to hand his boat over to the navy and has instead headed out to sea with his son Peter (Tom Glyn-Carny) and another boy George (Barry Keoghan) to do their bit for England. And in the air there’s Farrier (Tom Hardy), one of the pilots who has been sent to provide cover for the retreating ships. These men provide the anchors that hold the story together, but weaving through it all is the journey of Tommy (Fion Whitehead), an infantryman who is trying desperately to escape the ravages of a losing battle by finding a spot on a boat to take him back home. While most of these men never meet, each plays an integral role in moving the story of the battle of Dunkirk forward.
The film opens with Tommy arriving at the beach, German guns chasing him all the way. He finds a man burying a soldier in the sand and they join forces to carry a stretcher to one of the last red cross ships. But once they deliver the wounded, they are sent back to the beach to wait their turn for a ride. Before the ship leaves the dock however, the Germans drop bombs and Tommy watches it sink with the injured still aboard. This is the first of several boats that Tommy has to watch sink as he travels along the beach. He meets other soldiers, some friendly, some hostile who are all trying to find their own way home.
Farrier is leading the air forces across the channel, helped by another pilot, Collins (Jack Lowden), both of them anxious to reach the ships and take down the German planes that are all too common in the skies. Within the first few minutes of meeting Farrier, his plane takes fire and the fuel gauge is shot out, leaving him no way to know how long he has before he should turn back to refuel. Meanwhile, Mr. Dawson and the boys find their first rescue almost immediately, a shivering soldier (Cillian Murphy) who is shell shocked and unstable. They sail across a channel that has become a battleground, picking up other survivors as they can, their own ship thankfully too small to attract much attention. They watch planes get shot out of the sky and huge warships sink beneath the waves after being hit with German bombs. Steadfast in their mission they continue on, regardless of the danger.
Nolan’s films regularly blow by the two and a half hour mark, but Dunkirk clocks in at only an hour and forty-five minutes and the movie does this by sacrificing all pretense at character development. Several of their names are only mentioned once, and Cillian Murphy’s character doesn’t even have one. The movie focuses exclusively on what happens during the time at Dunkirk, revealing little of its characters histories outside of the events at hand. While I think Nolan pulls this off by aiming for perfection in every other aspect of the film, at times it can feel cold and removed, which will put some viewers off. That is not to say Dunkirk is not moving and powerful—it most certainly is—but Nolan achieves that by focusing on the overarching story of the group of men who participated in the battle as opposed to a few individuals.
Despite the limitations placed on them by Nolan’s focus on the larger picture, the actors in Dunkirk succeed admirably with what they are given. Fion Whitehead is a newcomer to the big screen and while he has very little dialogue, he uses body language and facial expression to great effect to draw the viewer in and communicate his single minded need to make it off the beach. Mark Rylance is the rock of hope, bringing some light into a very dark situation by going willingly into danger to help his fellow man. Tom Hardy shines as the heroic pilot, no small feat considering we rarely see him outside of a cramped cockpit and wearing full flying gear. His scenes allow for Nolan to show off his cinematography when looking out the planes windscreen. Most of them were shot using antique planes, often in the actual location of the battle. Even with its grim content, Dunkirk is a beautiful film with a heart wrenching realism in it’s design and execution.
This film is a showcase for Nolan’s development as a director as so many of the film tricks—some might say gimmicks—he has attempted in previous films are employed here with a subtle precision that takes the film from being disjointed and clinical to intense and captivating. Ultimately, Nolan doesn’t seem interested in dazzling us with mind bending ideas or twisty plots. Instead, he offers us a glimpse into the days and hours that the soldiers and civilians who were involved in the Battle of Dunkirk complete with all the sudden violence and dull tedium that comes with war. The characters names are unimportant; their fear and struggles for survival are what take center stage.