Mercurial and quite literally immersive, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk constitutes a welcome thaw in British war cinema, yet the film’s non-linear sequencing and lack of context hampers this much anticipated cinematic epoch from reaching “epic” proportions.
When it comes to complete and utter audiovisual immersion, Christopher Nolan has more than earned his stripes. Whilst intellectually heady and occasionally laboured in their abstraction, mainstream efforts such as Inception, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight Trilogy did much to cement Nolan as something of a household name and rightly so. Authorial yet highly sensitive to the intricacies of his craft, Nolan is certainly out on his own as a director of immense vision and ambition. Surprisingly then, it is this very sense of immensity that is missing in Dunkirk, a war film that whilst optically fresh is far from epic.
On paper, Dunkirk constitutes a much needed thaw in British war-time cinema and its for-the-numbers depiction of one of the most notorious and highly mythologised events in British history will please aficionados whilst giving the Call of Duty crowd a much needed lesson in subtlety. The infamous Dunkirk Evacuation has of course been chronicled before, both in the 1958 epic of the same name, and in the more recent three-part BBC docudrama from 2004, yet in comparison to the vast amount of American-centred world war two era films, the overall British and “Commonwealth” experience of the war has gone largely uncovered in contemporary cinema. In light of this, Dunkirk offers us a promising glimpse of what a revival of British war cinema could look like.
The action-heavy solipsism and soldier-centric posturing seen in the likes of crowd pleasers Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers has done much to stereotype war drama as little more than a gung-ho affair. Yet given how consistently popular such war epics have been, there is now a justifiable demand for more human stories that uncover the truth of war for soldier and civilian alike whilst remaining socially conscious of the events they depict. We need only look to Northern Europe for a variety of well produced films covering the outbreak of the war, where films like Diplomacy, April 9th, and more recently The King’s Choice have captured the chaos and dramatic uncertainty that gripped France, Denmark and Norway during the early days of the war.
Until the UK film industry catches up with the rest of Europe in its production of gritty WW2 dramas though, we will have to continue to resort to high end passion-fueled adaptations like Atonement (which contains an infamous continuous five minute tracking shot of the 1940 evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force) and the recent remake of Dad’s Army. Faced with little to choose from, Nolan’s Dunkirk initially seems like gold-dust. Gone is the soppy, propagandic sentimentalism usually associated with the British wartime experience, instead, we are thrown into a desperate battle for survival where any attempt at a military solution to an increasingly humanitarian problem has been all but abandoned. Nolan’s decision to cast predominantly young unknowns in leading roles, with the exception of Harry Styles, helps to break down the ideological barrier between civilian and soldier, boys and men, that plagues many a war drama. This is a major pull for the film, as it allows us to relate to the experiences of the protagonists in a way rarely seen in the genre. Indeed, the sense that we are witnessing young boys and not professional soldiers fleeing, swimming, and scrambling for their lives on the beaches of Dunkirk makes the peril all the more alarming. Boys who are not stoic and defiant in the face of insurmountable odds, but grim-faced and resigned to the death and destruction wrought by the encroaching German Army.
This grim humanism admittedly differentiates Dunkirk from more tepid dramatizations, as does, of course its excellent cinematography. The starkness of Hoyte Van Hoytema’s sandy visuals are where Dunkirk truly excels. The foamy, desolate English Channel and the smooth, boundless beaches of the Nord coastline are clearly intimate and evocative locations for Dutchman Hoytema, whose knowledge of and affection for the region are tangible in the melange of wide, panoramic shots of the sea and beach on show throughout.
However, whilst the film does well aesthetically, the overall narrative of the evacuation is unfortunately undermined by a lack of context. Indeed, to anchor proceedings in such a climatic battle without providing more of a background to the events depicted on screen makes things seem a little uneven. The film never really lives down this historical plot-hole, and whilst not vital to the overall staccato-like sequencing of the film, it does undermine the ability of the uninformed viewer to feel fully immersed. This need not be the case, especially given how brutal and effective the opening sequence of the film is. The shot of a faceless, callous enemy pursuing exhausted and outgunned volunteers and reservists is highly memorable; the relentless barrage of devastatingly accurate rifle instantly inducts us into the claustrophobic killzone that is Dunkirk. Much is said about how actors are positioned on screen, less about how the audience is implicated in the slaughter of war, and it is hard to not feel like we are spectators in a hunt to the last man.
Again, although this is very much conducive to the brevity of the film’s 106 minute running time, it does not really broaden our understanding as to why we are witnessing such an unevenly pitched battle in the first place. And what about the defense of the French Army, who are relegated to roughly a minute on screen? Tom Hardy’s performance as a resolute RAF Pilot exceeds expectations, but you do feel as air battle scenes would have been more effective had they been chopped down slightly on the cutting room floor. It surely couldn’t have hurt to have inserted several more minutes inducting us into the withdrawal of the BEP. Nolan would have been more than justified in cutting one of the many repetitive closeups of a stupefied Kenneth Branagh reacting to an impending Luftwaffe strafing run, which grate a little in the closing minutes. Alongside Cillian Murphy’s annoyingly unpredictable ‘shivering soldier’, Branagh does seem like a peculiar choice for a Navy Commander with his Tommy Hilfiger short back and sides, pale demeanour and sitting-duck like sheepishness.
And it’s not just his appearance that is found lacking, either. When challenged as to why the British Navy have not sent enough boats for the evacuation during a brief lull to proceedings, Branagh explains that “they’re saving them for the next battle… the Battle for Britain”, his gaze fixed on the horizon, presumably in the direction of the cabinet office at Whitehall, where where the action surely is. This is of course one of many nods to the impending Battle of Britain, yet after the third or fourth reference you can’t help but wonder if you’re watching the first in a six part Netflix series on the early days of the war. Still, on balance some contextual tidbits presaging the evacuation would have only added to the severity of the film, which is also undermined by a constant back and forth rotation between each individual subplot, which are never quite parallel. The intended effect of this is not so apparent and it acts to rob the film of its urgency rather than produce some much needed suspense. Less induced incoherence, bit more conventional docudrama perhaps?
Even if it didn’t completely live up to my expectations, Dunkirk is certainly worth seeing for the cinematography alone. We can only hope that the film will encourage a timely upsurge in nuanced depictions of the British and Commonwealth experience of the Second World War.