Film review | Dunkirk - survival film

In Dunkirk, there is no place for most of the tropes of the genre. Instead, what we have is a tale of men trying their utmost to survive in a bleak, immense landscape • 4/5

Dunkirk remains a remarkable work of a rare ambition in both visuals and storytelling
Dunkirk remains a remarkable work of a rare ambition in both visuals and storytelling

Review by Marco Attard

It seems that whenever a director wants to truly show off their mettle, they tend to go to war. Not literally, of course, but cinematically. And what 20th century conflict is as safe to tackle as the second World War, the one war nearly everyone agrees was, ultimately just? Steven Spielberg has his WW2 film (Saving Private Ryan), as does Terrance Malick (The Thin Red Line) and even Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Bastards), and now it’s the turn of Christopher Nolan, whose angle on the conflict is perhaps unlikely - Dunkirk. 

But first, a spot of history. The events of Dunkirk – a town in northern France, close to the Belgian border - took place in 1940. The British Expeditionary Force, dispatched to France in the previous year, was forced to retreat by the Nazis. The result was hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stranded on the miles of beach, making easy prey for German machineguns on the ground and bombers in the air. Eventually Operation Dynamo came to pass, where the Little Ships, a flotilla of 700 small, civilian craft evacuated over 300,000 men back to England, bringing what Churchill described as a “miracle of deliverance.”

It is an unusual war story for any director to adapt, even as it makes sure part of the British mythology surrounding WW2, and Nolan tackles it through an unusual structure. It consists of three plots (“1. The Mole,” “2. The Sea,” and “3. The Air.”), each respectively taking place over a week, a day, and an hour. The Mole is a concrete jetty jutting into Dunkirk Harbour; crossing the English Channel is the Moonstone, a Little Ships skippered by her owner, Dawson (Mark Rylance); meanwhile in the air a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) pursues a German bomber as he runs dangerously low on fuel. All throughout Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) overseas proceedings as a couple of British soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles) try to sneak on one of the ships evacuating the wounded off the shore. Thus an elemental tryptich of land, water and air is formed. 

For the curious, that is indeed Harry Styles of One Direction fame
For the curious, that is indeed Harry Styles of One Direction fame

In interviews Nolan has described Dunkirk less of a war film and more of a survival film, and that is very much the case. This is no tale of heroism or derring-do; its various protagonists are hardly sketched out enough to merit the description of characters, as if the business of staying alive has drained them of all that makes them human. Take the Moonstone’s first rescue, a nameless, shell-shocked man (Cillian Murphy) whose first, eventual utterance is “U-boat.” This is the essence of Nolan’s film making in Dunkirk, which is as stripped down as it possibly be - there is no place for most of the tropes of the genre here, be it troopers spouting one-liners or black humour, strategists making plans or even most of the violence and carnage so typical of the genre. Instead, what we have is a tale of men trying their utmost (and sometimes failing) to survive in a bleak, immense landscape. The enormity and scale of it all is staggering, be it the countless troops making their way through the beach, the ships and boats bobbing through an uncaring sea or the tiny aircraft, seen overhead, chasing each other. The result is a film of pure tension, eminently bolstered by Hans Zimmer’s most minimalist soundtrack yet. The music’s main motif is a constant ticking, rendering the cinematic experience near unbearable at times. And that is probably the point - as the film deftly flips between locations and timeframes, the viewer ends up feeling just like the troops on the shore or the Hardy’s pilot in the air, desperately checking his Spitfire’s fuel gauge. 

As worthy as a piece of film making Dunkirk is, one has to admit Nolan ends up victim to at least a couple of traps, the chief of which being the conclusion’s sentimentality - after all, it fails to show any of the politics behind the “colossal military disaster” that was the Allied assault preceding the events at Dunkirk. One can also argue Nolan presents an all too sanitised and bloodless view of the war, especially since the Nazis –ultimately the reasons behind the global conflict - are little more than an abstraction of machinegun fire and Stuka bomber. That said, Dunkirk remains a remarkable work of a rare ambition in both visuals and storytelling, one that’s well worth watching on the biggest and loudest cinema available. And while the Churchill speech in the end remains mawkish it still manages to bring some level of relief.

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