Fractured narrative timelines and character studies of humanity under pressure. Christopher Nolan returns to cinemas, using his now characteristic methods and tropes, to tell the story of Dunkirk. With 300,000 British soldiers stranded on the beaches with Britain nearly in site but yet desperately out of reach, Nolan views this rescue mission by land, air and sea.
Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) just wants to get home. To escape the horrors he has encountered and with a band of similarly minded souls including Harry Styles (in his acting debut) will do anything to realise their goal. These young men long for home, for a return to normal life and wish to escape the nightmare they have endured. Tommy is our first encounter, wandering the streets of Dunkirk as the propaganda telling him the allied cause is hopeless flutters around him. There is wonderful cinematic beauty in this moment but very quickly this moves to terror as gunfire rings out and he runs for cover. Zimmer’s ticking score follows Tommy on his journey to stress (and it is stressful at times) how the window of opportunity for escape is significantly time bound and constantly playing on his mind.
By sea, Mark Rylance is forming part of the public quest to rescue these stranded souls. Spurred on by a sense of duty and desire to do what is right, the small vessel encounters many difficulties and on the journey picks up Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked soldier who has no desire to return to the beaches he has recently escaped. Rylance is as much a hero as any of the soldiers as he heads towards a possible suicide mission out of a need to do his bit in the face of great adversity.
Above all of them, literally speaking, is fighter pilot Tom Hardy who embroils himself in dogfights with German forces to try and lighten the load for those beneath. A stressful enough proposition but he also has a questionable fuel gauge and is himself embroiled in a battle against time. He too must choose between attempting to save others and self-preservation.
By telling three separate stories and then, as is now stylistically familiar for Nolan, connecting these seemingly differing strands the viewer is taken on a journey of war, desperation, hopelessness and heroism. Backed by the relentless scoring of Hans Zimmer this film contains much more suspense than a standard war film. This is impressive given the historical nature of this tale and that we as viewer know the outcome of the larger story. The suspense however lives within the separate strands and the numerous difficulties each must go through in their attempt to survive.
Also notable is that for large portions of the film there is little to no dialogue and the film could almost be considered part of the silent cinema genre. Dialogue is used sparingly and only implemented when absolutely necessary. So much of this story can be told through what is presented on screen rather than what is spoken making dialogue a secondary story telling device.
Further indication of the films brilliance lies in the fact that there no one focal point. There is no hero in this tale. No leading light. Nolan is determined to show that all lives in this story matter. Everyone plays their part and no individual has any higher significance than the other. Everyone within the story of Dunkirk is a hero in their own right.
Beautifully shot and wonderfully told the story Nolan is telling pushes us to question what sacrifice looks like, what it means to believe in your convictions and take a stand for what is right. This is the story of everyday heroes, of everyone having their role and playing their part for the greater good.
This is pulse quickening, nerve shredding cinema at its best and everyone should make a point of seeing Dunkirk as soon as possible.