You don’t actually hear too many character names in Dunkirk. The men remain formally anonymous, defined by their actions rather than their names. There’s Kenneth Branagh’s British naval commander, trying to get his head around the logistical nightmare of getting some 400,000 Allied troops off of a French beach near the eponymous town, while German artillery and bombers wreak terrible havoc on both the ships sent to evacuate them and the actual men desperate to get home. There’s Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden’s RAF pilots, flying sorties over the land and sea battle, trying to ping Luftwaffe planes before they drop their payloads. There’s Harry Styles and Fionn Whitehead’s British Army privates, part of that milling 400,000, all thoughts of heroism and adventure forgotten as they try to find some way, any way, to get the hell off the killing floor that the coastline has become.
The exception, notably, is Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson, a civilian boatsman and one of countless who were hastily assembled to help evacuate the troops once it became clear that a more conventional approach was going to leave corpses piled head high. It’s he in his little boat, along with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his friend (Barry Keoghan), who acts as Dunkirk‘s soft spoken, implacable moral compass. “We’ve a job to do,” he gently tells Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked soldier as he steers them into the hell of battle. “There’s no hiding from this.”
That’s the attitude that permeates the entire exercise. Dunkirk is a film about quiet, pragmatic heroism in the face of certain doom, of small choices and moments of courage contrasted against horror and conflict of almost debilitating scale. It’s an attitude that suits director Christopher Nolan – doing the best work of his career here, make no mistake. Nolan has often been criticised for being a cold and distant director, but in truth he’s not an unemotional filmmaker, simply one who disdains unearned sentimentality. That’s a stereotypically British trait, in a way – think the Old Blitz Spirit, or the Keep Calm & Carry On variation of your choice. His remit here is to lionise the British experience of World War II – something we’re seeing a fair bit of lately, between Churchill and Darkest Hour – but to do it in an appropriately stiff upper lip manner. He does so dexterously, balancing horror and, yes, heroism, with self-effacement and humility.
Crucially, Nolan does not mistake gore for suspense, and while the body count here is massive, the film deals out its deaths in a surprisingly discrete way; it’s interesting to ponder what Spielberg, who littered the screen with limbs and intestines in Saving Private Ryan, or, God help us, Michael Bay, might have done with the material. Nolan even keeps his antagonists at a distance, the Germans making their presence known with bombing and strafing runs, or bullet holes suddenly appearing in the hull of a foundering ship. The enemy is treated like an oncoming storm, a thing not to be fought but to be avoided. In a way, Dunkirk has more in common with a natural disaster movie than a war film, and it’s far more interested in celebrating the valour of simple survival than any kind of martial prowess.
Which certainly doesn’t mean the film is bereft of tension – indeed, this is one of of the most gut-tightening, engrossing, downright suspenseful films of the year. Nolan brings all his considerable technical acumen to mounting the film’s stunningly impressive action sequences, intercutting with incredible precision between different elements, driven along by Hans Zimmer’s nerve-jangling, propulsive, clipped score. Giant ships sink while men scramble for the surface, bombs slam into dunes as men cower beneath ludicrously flimsy pie-plate helmets, fighters jockey for position in blue skies in some of the best dogfighting seen on film. It’s simply masterful stuff, all captured by the nigh-brutal clarity of Hoyte von Hoytema’s cinematography. Nolan and his editor, Lee Smith, zip between incidents with mathematical exactness, building the tempo to an almost unbearable pitch before allowing even a hint of catharsis, then barely pausing for breath before beginning the build up again. Anyone studying parallel action in a film school classroom in the next 20 years is going to be watching Dunkirk – it’s masterful stuff.
Masterful? It just might be a masterpiece. It’s leagues ahead of Nolan’s last effort, the ungainly Interstellar, and in his previous oeuvre only The Prestige is comparable in terms of sheer, breathtaking, cinematic skill. What really strikes home is what a work of artistic discipline Dunkirk is, eschewing almost all unnecessary exposition, dialogue and backstory, delivering up a stirring, satisfying epic war story in only 106 minutes (!). It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and might even be the best – at the very least, it’s hard to imagine another 2017 release more certain of a Best Picture Oscar nomination.