When renowned director Christopher Nolan chose to tackle one of the most remarkable events of World War II, audiences knew to expect an unconventional experience. In Dunkirk, Nolan focuses his creative lens on one of the grimmest moments of Britain’s involvement in World War II, when almost 400,000 men in the British and French armies were pushed to the coast of France, stranded and facing annihilation, until civilian volunteers risked death to help the Navy ferry them home across the English Channel.
Nolan does not attempt a grandiose retelling of the whole affair. Typical of his nonlinear approach, the film follows three smaller, distinct timelines: the first, a week with several soldiers stranded on the Dunkirk shore and desperate for any means to get home; the second, a single day with an English civilian and his son as they attempt to cross the Channel to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk; the third, an hour with an RAF pilot providing air cover for the evacuation boats.
Nolan transitions seamlessly between these three timelines, without warning or explanation. With almost deceptive simplicity, time becomes like a field of vision through which the story moves freely and without complication. There is no boastful camera work or vain CGI flourishes. Instead, there is a careful attention to historical visual detail and sharp focus on physical realities. Dunkirk likewise employs little dialogue; it wastes no words on exposition or moralizing or even wit. Emotions, too, are simplified: fear, self-interest, desire to survive, patriotism, and attention to duty make up straightforward human portraits.
Although direct and nearly minimalist, the story unfolds unconventionally: there is no cut-and-dry conflict, no easy emotional payoff; no winking hint at eventual victory; no promises about the fate of the central characters. The miscommunication, irony, unpredictability, and gray ethical dilemmas tightly parallel real human life in war.
The downside of this storytelling method freed from traditional cinematic patterns is that the pacing is somewhat stressful. Though beautifully shot, it is not merely slow; at times, it is agonizing to watch the setbacks and repetitious trials of the men caught in the Dunkirk dilemma. The incessant strained action scenes on the beach, at sea, and in the air are not merely intense and realistic; they are mentally draining. This is doubtless a testament to Nolan’s intention to recreate the bleak experience of war; but the result is a film that requires endurance of its viewers.
This artistic unity extends to the film’s use of sound. Nolan’s preferred collaborator Hans Zimmer blends the score into the background of Dunkirk to the point of effacement. The soundtrack has no clear passages of music except a brief moment of relief at the very end; until then the score resonates with drone-like ticking and whirring and intense, prolonged bass tones that merge perfectly with the sounds of war and bore uncomfortably into one’s psyche. Although effective in the artistic context of the film, this technique arguably eclipses Zimmer’s real talent for creating a musical landscape. (Additionally, when some distinctive moment of the score does emerge from the background, it too often echoes Zimmer’s work for Inception and Interstellar.)
Nolan also exercises careful artistic economy in a subtle depersonalization of the Nazis. The audience does not see a single Nazi face or hear a single German word. Bullets, bombs, torpedoes, and planes alone signify their existence—except for one brief shot in which a few faceless Nazi figures bleed vaguely into the blurred background. Even the word “Nazi”—in modern Hollywood maybe too closely associated with pop stories about WWII (e.g. Indiana Jones)—is left unmentioned and replaced ubiquitously with “the enemy,” a more psychologically dark and mysterious concept. This reflects the viewpoint of the British soldiers, but may also be intended to sever the audience’s attention from the baggage of WWII movies and shepherd it more closely around the people in desperate circumstances—human faces in a moment of darkness.
Matching this frugal aesthetic, the story is sparingly supported with excellent but understated performances by the principal actors. No drawn-out histrionics or emotional tirades mar the experience Nolan builds. Kenneth Branagh is noteworthy as Royal Navy Commander Bolton, taking a stiff-upper-lip approach to the daunting task of evacuating as many men as possible, while evincing a deep love of homeland and patriotic pugnacity in defeat. Equally solid is the subdued, calm delivery of Mark Rylance as the civilian piloting his boat across the Channel; his simple motivation of resolute patriotism and selflessness makes him seem like a character from another era, uncommon in modern films.
In fact, within its unique framework, Nolan’s Dunkirk holds up—even in the face of senseless death, selfishness, and hopelessness—the paradox of victory in defeat, the value of perseverance, of love of homeland, and of hoping when all seems lost. Given the grim milieu, this is a message almost exclusively clarified by the soldiers’ reading of Winston Churchill’s famous post-Dunkirk speech in which he declares, facing embarrassing defeat and imminent invasion:
Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance … We shall go on to the end… we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…
Despite their apparent failure, the evacuated soldiers from Dunkirk are welcomed home as heroes; their very survival in the face of failure manifests their resilience before the enemy.
In the light of this glimmer of hope, the climactic meeting of the film’s three timelines—told from a perspective unbound by chronology—points not just to fortunate coincidence, but to the hand of a Providence beyond time. Characters in these three intersecting story lines juggle split-second choices between self-sacrifice or self-interest, without guaranteed outcomes. Exceptional is Tom Hardy (a Nolan favorite) as the RAF pilot, who must decide whether to give up his own means of escape for the sake of other men whom he is unlikely to ever meet. The pilot’s tacit conviction that this is worth doing, and the providential timeliness of his decision amidst much else that seems random and tragic, drives home the victory-within-defeat paradox of the film.
There is finally this to be said about Dunkirk as an entry in Nolan’s oeuvre: although clearly bearing its maker’s fingerprints, this film is unlike anything else he has done. There is here no preoccupation with the fantastical and psychologically complex; no elaborate, bizarre twists; no heavy reliance on the performance of special central characters. Dunkirk is beautifully simple, even in its portrait of the sufferings of war. It offers a restraint of emotions, and, remarkably, clarity of plot. By the end, Dunkirk possesses a beauty like the sun setting in a clear sky—bright colors fading into night, no less epic for its simplicity.