The first line heard in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk is a declaration of identity. “English! Anglais!” shouts the inky-haired, milky-faced Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he hurries toward a group of French soldiers at the end of a deserted street, having narrowly escaped being gunned down by Germans. Identity is crucial in this movie. Questions arise about the nationality of a grunt who appears to have fallen mute: is he a German spy? And with several hundred thousand soldiers cornered in Dunkirk awaiting evacuation in May 1940, foreigners are weeded out of the lines of men waiting for rescue by British vessels.
Only one naval ship has been committed to the evacuation: with German bombers dotting the sky, picking off the troops waiting on the beach and jetty (or mole), the military won’t risk putting in jeopardy any vessels that may be needed come the next big battle. In the absence of other options, an improvised flotilla of civilian boats makes its bobbing way across the Channel towards Dunkirk.
That cry of “English! Anglais!” could also signal a returning home for the British-born, Anglo-American Nolan. For 20 years, he has been almost exclusively a Hollywood filmmaker, darkening the mood at multiplexes with his sombre Dark Knight series and his riddle-me-this puzzle pictures Inception and Interstellar, and becoming in the process one of the world’s genuine superstar directors. Dunkirk brings him back to his roots while continuing to pose the sort of structural challenges that have animated him since Memento (still his most wickedly inventive work) and The Prestige (a close second).
To maintain a triple-pronged narrative that cuts between soldiers such as Tommy on the beach, plucky civilian volunteers such as Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) inching across the waves toward France, and the RAF Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) babysitting the lot of them from the air, Nolan’s screenplay fuses the three timelines. This gives the impression that everything is happening concurrently, when, in fact, there are minuscule flashbacks, flash-forwards and replays of the action from different angles sewn into the editing. The events on the mole occupy around a week, the ones at sea a day, while the darting aerial combat lasts merely an hour. Providing momentum and continuity is Hans Zimmer’s surging score, which is shot through with mechanical groans and shrill, sawing violins redolent of exposed nerves.
Cinema has been stretching time since at least Battleship Potemkin but it is unusual to find elongation and compression used simultaneously. The soldiers’ long wait to be rescued, as they take cover in one ship that gets torpedoed and another that is beached, is necessarily abridged. The pilots’ mission, on the other hand, is stretched out and rendered in intricate detail; at one point, Farrier’s survival comes to depend on nothing more than a piece of chalk.
It’s a sly joke for Nolan to confine an actor as imposing as Tom Hardy to a cramped cockpit as well as hiding his pretty face with a disfiguring mask for the second time. (His unintelligible turn in The Dark Knight Rises caused viewers everywhere to cup their ears in a collective “Eh?”) Casting elsewhere works on the Thin Red Line principle that minor characters are more easily defined when played by stars: Kenneth Branagh is a naval commander, Cillian Murphy a shell-shocked soldier. Advance publicity has dwelt on the acting debut of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, who is the latest British pop star cast by the director following Tim Booth in Batman Begins and David Bowie in The Prestige. Styles does a decent job and doesn’t bump into the furniture, though there are other elements in the film more worthy of note.
Chief among them is the decision to create suspense without horror, substantiating Nolan’s claim that this is not so much a war movie as a survival film. Audiences are put on high alert by an ambush in the opening scene and by the shot of a dead man’s foot sticking out of the sand. A soldier asked how he knows that the tide is coming in responds by pointing out that bodies are washing up on the shore. Yet Nolan is manifestly not playing a game of oneupmanship against Saving Private Ryan. Hints of violence are sparing. Soldiers killed by bombs simply disappear in an explosion of earth, and the one death in which our empathy is actively solicited falls loosely and ignominiously into the category of friendly fire.
For all its accomplished action sequences and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s expressive cinematography, which mimics at times the distressed texture of Super 8, the picture is distinguished by a knack for undercutting genre conventions without diminishing them emotionally. Pretty much the only red stuff shown is the strawberry jam handed out on slices of bread aboard a hospital ship; the one time we hear the words of Churchill they are read aloud from the morning paper by an exhausted soldier understandably lacking in bombast or ceremony.
This article appears in the 19 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder