I might as well acknowledge from the start that I’m suspicious of Dunkirk, just as I’m suspicious of this year’s Churchill film and suspicious to the point of despair about the about-to-open Victoria & Abdul, no matter how well Judi Dench plays Victoria, again. I’m not sure that the world needs any more cultural objects right now that are basically rehashes of Britain as world power, even if, as Churchill said of Dunkirk at the time, “an evacuation is not a victory”, and, come to that, Christopher Nolan is a consistently interesting film-maker.
So, on the upside, it is technically interesting, in that Nolan refuses almost all of that tedious backstory stuff that usually clutters up films, especially films in which the characters have a risk of death, and which allows us to attach judgmental labels to them. The illusion he is creating for us is that he is putting us face-to-face in the moment with the characters (although unlike them, we know how it turned out.) This also means it must have one of the shortest scripts of a modern full length film. And Nolan refuses to use CGI, which is laudable, since CGI is clearly the drug that has destroyed Hollywood’s imagination.
Except: that in telling a story that involved evacuating 50,000 people a day from a beach for a week he clearly hasn’t got enough extras to convey the scale of the operation, and one of the things that attracted Nolan to the story was the scale of the operation. (There are ways around such things. I’m thinking of the visual innovation Edward Dmytrk brought to Crossfire when the shooting schedule didn’t allow for proper lighting set-ups, but Nolan doesn’t opt for this.)
On the downside, I hate films where the music tells me blatantly what I’m supposed to feel. Hans Zimmer’s score plays with the chords of ‘Nimrod’ from the moment it looks like the evacuation plan is going to work, and by the time he’s got to the end he’s gone full Elgar (“Variation 15”). Like I said, enough of that age of empire stuff.
The moment. Nolan sees the film in an elemental way, as being earth, sea and air. The earth is the ‘mole’ or beach area of Dunkirk, protected by two long breakwaters, and as he introduces these elements (pun intended) he adds a caption with their ‘time’ attached to them. The mole is a week–which is how long they have before the Germans overrun the defences. The sea is a day–how long it takes the boats to go there and back. And the air is an hour: the flying time of a Spitfire across the Channel before they run out of a fuel. I’ve never seen a director share with the audience the way their film thinks about time in such a straightforward way.