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Non-Review Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk is compelling in its contradictions.

Dunkirk concerns a pyrrhic victory, a defeat which became a source of national pride. Dunkirk is at once a story rooted in a very particular event and a mythic narrative populated by archetypal characters. Dunkirk follows three parallel stories as they move towards a singular inevitable climax, although those narratives are allowed to move at their own pace towards those epic events and even overshoot one another. Dunkirk is at once chaotic and disjointed, and yet moving with a very clear sense of purpose and direction.

Directed by Christopher Nolan, it is too much to describe Dunkirk as a “puzzle box” narrative. It always very clear to the audience exactly what is going on, and the movie’s mysteries and revelations tend to be smaller and intimate rather than broad and sweeping. Nevertheless, it is a movie consciously unstuck in time, recalling Nolan’s long-standing fascination with shifting his narrative backwards and forwards along a timeline. (Insomnia, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand out as Nolan’s most linear films.)

Dunkirk is a war epic in the broadest possible sense, its narrative bouncing between three separate timelines covering the retreat from the eponymous port. However, there is also a faint sense that Dunkirk itself is unstuck in time. As much as the film is rooted in the reality of the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk, it speaks to something much bigger and more sweeping. There is a vagueness to Dunkirk which suggests that the film might well speak to realities beyond its specific setting.

As with most of Nolan’s films, the act of seeing and perceiving is an important part of Dunkirk. Nolan is a director fascinated with the gulf between myth and reality, between the narratives that are cultivated and the events that occurred. Memento explores the idea of memory as a cohesive narrative of individual identity, one that might be manipulated or distorted. The Prestige is a story about an entire life devoted to a magic trick. Inception is a film about dreams. Batman Begins follows Bruce Wayne as he transforms himself into “more than just a man.”

Dunkirk fits very comfortably into this framework, even just as subject matter with which Nolan might work. The Battle of Dunkirk was by all accounts a spectacular disaster for the Allied forces, leaving four hundred thousand British soldiers surrounded by the German army. These forces just about managed to escape, a daring rescue recovering three hundred thousand of these recruits from the beach. By any measure, it should have been a humiliating defeat for the British. “They’ll spit on us in the streets,” one survivor suggests of their return home.

However, the Battle of Dunkirk was transformed in the telling. The historical narrative dismissed these cold hard facts, cultivating a story of national courage and conviction. Those soldiers stared down impossible odds, and returned alive to fight another day. “Survival is victory,” the characters in the film reflect. Given the larger arc of history, with Britain becoming the Island Fortress and later a staging post for an invasion of mainland Europe, the Battle of Dunkirk could quickly be rewritten as a tale of those who overcame and endured.

This mythmaking filters through Dunkirk. Seeing is very important in the context of the film. Dunkirk is populated by characters who can almost see it, but who are just a little blind to the specifics of what is occurring. For most of the film, Dunkirk itself is largely obscured. It looms just over the horizon, marked by large trails of smoke that obscure the vision. Two of the three narrative threads in Dunkirk follow characters traversing the vast and infinite ocean to reach Dunkirk, seeing it only just over the horizon.

Meanwhile, those characters stranded in the port look longingly across the ocean towards Britain. “You can almost see it from here,” reflects Commander Bolton. The most important word there is “almost.” At one point, survivors find themselves blessed by a blind priest. One shell-shocked soldier complains, “He couldn’t even look at us.” At another point in the narrative, one young man tends to a wounded colleague. “I can’t see anything,” the young man complains, panicked and uncertain.

Characters in Dunkirk are constantly peering and watching. The bulk of the story is told from the perspective of civilians and low-ranking soldiers. Commander Bolton is first introduced as two junior soldiers eavesdrop on their superiors. One tense sequence finds young recruits trying to cautious peer through bullet holes. Repeatedly in Dunkirk, from as early as the opening shot, the camera seems to herd characters through tunnels and in straight lines.

Even characters in the sky have no clearer perspective on events. Although they have the perfect vantage point, the RAF pilots often miss key details or struggle to take in everything that is needed. “They’ll come out of the sun,” one pilot observes to his colleague. As they search frantically for their squadron leader, one complains, “I didn’t see a parachute.” There is a sense of something very ambiguous and unfixed in all this, as if the characters have somehow stumbled into something beyond their comprehension.

In many ways, Dunkirk plays as a war movie by way of a survival horror. The movie pays very little attention to the German forces marching on Dunkirk. Their presence is keenly felt, but they are rarely seen. Instead, they exist as a monster lurking at the edge of the frame, ready to pursue and attack our heroes like the wolf in some grim fairytale. The opening scene features a powerhouse chase in which an isolated British soldier never even sees the enemy chasing him.

The Germans are denied any sense of identity or personhood. The opening text refers ambiguously to “the enemy.” Commander Bolton repeats that turn of phrase later on. There is a sense that the British army in Dunkirk is not facing a well-supplied military force with superior manpower and technology, but is instead grappling with something more fundamental and archetypal. Then again, the same is arguably true of the lead characters.

Dunkirk has an impressive ensemble cast, and a lot of the actors do very good work in their roles. In particular, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy all stand out as much as is possible. However, Dunkirk is not particularly interested in individual characters. Nobody in Dunkirk carries around a picture of their sweetheart back home, or sits on the beach writing love letters. An audience member would be forgiven for sitting through Dunkirk and not recalling a single character’s name.

Perhaps telling, the film’s nominal lead character is called “Tommy”, an old-fashioned nickname for British soldiers. There is a sense that the characters in Dunkirk are all really cogs in a larger machine, all defined by their roles and their circumstances more than by their history or their character. In some ways, Dunkirk is just as quiet a film (in terms of dialogue) as War for the Planet of the Apes. One of the movie’s bigger twists hinges on the fact that two very close characters never actually speak to one another.

This is not to suggest that Dunkirk is cold or dispassionate. Dunkirk displays the same wry humanism that defines a lot of Nolan’s work, powered by the idea that people might be selfish and shortsighted, but they are generally decent. Dunkirk repeatedly suggests that this is a story about cowards, about characters who are desperate to survive amid the carnage. However, while some of this survival instinct leads to weakness, some of it is treated as a source of strength. Dunkirk insists that there can be bravery in enduring in the face of the horrific.

Dunkirk might be rooted in real events, but it plays like a scale model of war as an abstract concept. This is one of the movie’s most endearing aspects, its relatively tight and self-contained framework, and its use of that framework to delve into abstract questions and ideas. The events in Dunkirk might reference one particular event, but they have a stronger resonance. Soldiers from across history will recognise a lot of the texture and imagery.

Of course, the horrors of war are very no less real for being rendered at a remove. Dunkirk is an immersive and visceral movie, albeit one that feels (quite literally) elemental in nature. Water repeatedly threatens to drown the primary cast, with Nolan creating a palpable claustrophobia and anxiety. Fire burns with red hot fury, at one point even consuming those soldier who sought safety in the water. Nature seems to rail against these soldiers.

The earth and the sea both reject the dead. “The tide is coming in,” Commander Bolton observes. “The bodies are washing back.” The sand covering the shallow graves of the lost troops blows away in the wind, the tips of boots serving as markers to the fallen. The salt water foams at the edge of the surf, looking almost like soap; it is as if the ocean were trying to wash away the last trace of man’s horrific folly.

Repeatedly over the course of Dunkirk, there is a sense that the characters do not fully understand the situations in which they have found themselves, their perspective obscured and distorted by their involvement in events. However, some characters seem to sense the gravity of what is unfolding. The climax of Dunkirk is populated by characters looking to the heavens, as if in search of divine intervention or recompense. Nolan is not a religious film maker, he is a humanist; what little relief is to be had comes from the hand of man.

This sense of distortion is heightened by Nolan’s use of non-linear structuring. Dunkirk unfolds across three primary plot threads, with characters occasionally crossing over between them. One thread plays out over a week, another story plays out over a day, the final plot playing out over an hour. Nolan is a smart enough writer and director that these elements remain coherent, and ensures that the dissonance is just strong enough to play into the movie’s core themes.Hans Zimmer’s score, a constant oppressive presence, helps create a sense of continuity.

Like the soldiers, the audience is only seeing fragments of a much larger event. Time bends and distorts, speeding up and slowing down as the film progresses. Towards the climax of the film, the narratives even overshoot one another. Although there is a beautiful moment of intersection, the three threads eventually become unstuck once again becoming chaotic and ambiguous. Then again, this fits with the movie’s themes. The characters in Dunkirk only overlap for a brief moment, and it is hard to know if they fully appreciate that temporary convergence.

Dunkirk is a superb piece of work, and a fantastic accomplishment. It is a triumph.

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5 Responses

  1. What an excellent review, thank you. However, given the campaign of high ratings for Dunkirk its scary to voice a dissenting view. There is no doubt that this is a digital effects spectacular, but despite some big name stars there is little character development and little historical context. If you did not know the story of Dunkirk you may be none the wiser after seeing this film. I gave it 3 1/2 stars for spectacle only.

    • I don’t know, I feel like the lack of character and historical context was the point. Repeatedly over the course of the film, we are told that characters cannot see; George as he’s dying, the fighter pilots as the squadron leader crashes, the priest at the end, Bolton and the southern shore of England. There’s a sense that none of the characters in the film have any idea of the scale of the event in which they are caught. More than that, there’s also a sense of heightened absurdity to it, with the Mole feeling almost Kafka-esque, and Dunkirk looming on the horizon as a pillar of smoke for most of the film, a scale model of war.

      • I’m sympathetic to your point of view; literally, I mean. The idea that this film deliberately creates a kind of myopic claustrophobic inward-looking perpective, where you see nothing but what is immediately in front of view and what you need to do to survive…that is certainly a cinematic achievement. Thanks for replying.

  2. I was OK with being dropped on the beach and shifting time narrative. This is a snap shot of an epic war. A very small chapter. The perspective isn’t meant to be from an outsiders point of view in my opinion. You are meant to feel the uncertainty of what is happening. It was an immersive experience to me, for the most part.
    I don’t have anything against those that didn’t like it. Having a clear narrative and arc makes for a less challenging experience and not everyone goes to the cinema to have to sift through a film and figure out the context.
    If the Pearl Harbor movie had taken this approach, I would have enjoyed that more….and there are a lot of people that loved that film. It’s just a matter of taste.

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