“In placing us, the audience, at the heart of the experience, Christopher Nolan has hit the spot” – Dara Higgins on Dunkirk
Given the events that unfolded in Dunkirk in Summer of 1940 are historical record, it’s interesting to see if Christopher Nolan manages to pepper his plot with as many holes are there are in Blackburn, Lancashire. Why evacuate the BEF, when they can go into the sewer for a few months? And will Tom Hardy be mumbling into a mask for the entire picture? Well, let’s see.
Nolan splits his narrative in 3, essentially land, the soldiers stuck on the beach, sea, the navy and the civilians who sailed over to help and air, the RAF doing their bit, and further messes with the linear aspect of these timelines. Of course he does. But it works, it isn’t confusing.
On land we focus on Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and his desperate attempts to get off the beach. Having being pursued by advancing Germans and escaping death by the skin of his teeth, he’s got some incentive, but when he reaches le plage, he finds that a couple of hundred thousand other Tommies have gotten there before him and he’s due a wait. And while they wait, queuing in a very British way up to their knees in the sucking surf, Jerry and his Stukas get to pick them off at will. Tommy wants off, who’s blame him?
Meanwhile, in the future, at the same time, the Navy are requisitioning civilian boats. All of them. Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes off with a crew of his son and his mate George (Dublin’s Barry Keoghan) on the short hop across the channel, picking up a deeply traumatised Cillian Murphy and a ditched Spitfire Pilot along the way. In the air Tom Hardy wears a mask and mumbles incomprehensibly, chasing Messerschmitts in a way that’s as scary as it is convincing.
Verity of experience is the name of Nolan’s game here. He wants to capture the reality of the ordinary Tommies endeavour to survive, and that of the civilians who arrived in their hundreds to help. There’s little, if any CGI. The sounds of war are as they should be, loud. The squeal of a diving Junkers is ear-splitting and terrifying. Throughout Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is like an itch you can’t scratch, the ticking of a clock adding to the tension. It’s all about time. Escaping from the enemy, sailing the channel, getting the job done before your fuel runs out.
So, without running the risk of spoiling the end, after rescue the Allies had to regroup, nose bloodied. Dunkirk represented the British Army’s worst defeat, but within that defeat there was victory. That being that the Army was still intact. Of course, history can spin it that way. The Allies won in the end, and in no small way they were helped by the evacuation of a quarter of a million fellas at Dunkirk. They literally lived to fight another day, and there were better days ahead. Dunkirk, though, focuses on how the ordinary chap fared. How the sacrifice had better be worth it, dealing with the idea of having failed in your mission, reconciling less than heroic behaviour in the blind panic to escape, remembering the lads that didn’t make it and all that.
In placing us, the audience, at the heart of the experience, Christopher Nolan has hit the spot, and the fact that he can’t screw too much with historical fact helps here. Plot, such as it is, doesn’t get in the way of visceral storytelling. As a movie, it simply seeks to put you in the moment, which it does. Sure, the victory from the jaws of defeat stuff smacks a little of Poor Little Vast Empire, but this isn’t a big picture picture, it’s the little people that matter here. Close to Nolan’s best work, in fact. Lacks his customary intrigue, but as raw, in yer face cinema goes, this is up there.