Silence and brevity. Two words never used to describe the Second World War, particularly Operation Dynamo in which over 300,000 soldiers, described by Churchill as “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, were evacuated from Dunkirk by a hastily assembled fleet of Royal Navy ships, passenger ferries and several hundred private boats known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk after being stranded on the wrong side of the English Channel following the Fall of France.
But the silence and brevity at the heart of Christopher Nolan’s latest film since the time-bending head-scratcher that was Interstellar is a masterful example of the “less is more” school of filmmaking. The dialogue is pared back to the bare bones; the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is epic in scale yet up, close and personal in detail; and the nightmarish and ghostly soundscape by Hans Zimmer (who along with van Hoytema worked with Nolan on Interstellar) conveys the heroism, desperation and luck behind the “All for one and one for all” evacuation.
Three captioned plot strands in three different time zones and locations intertwine: “The Mole”, referring to the harbour and pier at Dunkirk, where Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) supported by Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) wrestle with the elements, the Luftwaffe and their consciences (“One stretcher takes the place of seven standing men. You’ve got to decide how many wounded to evacuate.”) to ensure the safe transportation of several hundred thousand stranded troops, including British Army privates Tommy and Alex (Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles) and French soldier Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) who sneaked on board a series of vessels by stealing the identity of a dead soldier.
“The Air”, in which Royal Air Force pilots Collins and Farrier (Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy) fly till they dry in order to protect the evacuating soldiers from the squealing approach and rapid gunfire of German bombers. And “The Sea”, where mariner Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young deck hand George (Barry Keoghan) answer Churchill’s call to pluck scores of stranded soldiers from the English Channel, including the appropriately named Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) whose survival from a U-boat launched torpedo provoked one of many prophetic responses from the measured Mr Dawson: “He’s shell-shocked, George. He’s not himself. He many never be himself again.”
The visual imagery is stunning and shocking in equal measure, at one point resembling Antony Gormley’s Another Place: a hundred cast-iron life-size figures on Crosby Beach which face the horizon in silent contemplation of their fate. The score ‒ a soundscape of water and wind, strings and brass, gunfire and engines ‒ is both hair-raising and goose pimple-swelling as the three plot strands tighten their knot in one crescendo after another. And Nolan’s pared back script allows the images to tell the story and gives weight to the diamond cut dialogue. “The battle is here,” says a frustrated soldier about the snail-paced evacuation. “What the hell are they waiting for?” To which Commander Bolton responds in a voice as cold as ice: “The next war. The one to save Britain.”
Video courtesy of: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Christopher Nolan
Writer: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Damien Bonnard, Aneurin Barnard