If you thought Dunkirk would be a war film that revels in victory at the end of a journey, it is not. This is a Christopher Nolan film. The Miracle of Dunkirk is his subject but there was no victory. Dunkirk was defeat and desperation and the eventual evacuation. Nolan has taken us though a wormhole, inside the human brain, shown us his idea of the Caped Crusader, and has now gifted us a film with near-apocalyptic scenes, told from three perspectives.
“…we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender,” was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s famous speech in the British parliament on June 4, 1940, the day the Dunkirk evacuation ended. Nolan picks up Churchill’s speech and gives his viewers battle scenes from land, sea and air. He tells his story in a non-linear manner, but never for a moment can you afford to let your attention waver. Such is the man’s grip on the camera, and on people who go in to watch a Nolan movie.
What ensued in Dunkirk during those eight days in May-June 1940 hasn’t exactly been explored at this level by any contemporary Hollywood filmmaker. The Dunkirk evacuation comes alive in Nolan’s hands. Dunkirk is shot for IMAX, and you would benefit massively from watching the film in that format. It is a thoroughly immersive experience.
Nolan makes you shrink in your seat when you see a group of soldiers stuck under water, he makes you duck when the German planes bomb the British ships at sea, he makes you stare at the screen in wonder when the long, gorgeous shots of the English Channel are presented in front of you. You are with Mr Dawson when he sails towards Dunkirk to bring the soldiers home, and you feel every bit of the restlessness that an Alex feels when they are waiting for high tide. Dunkirk is not something you would want to miss.
It is May 1940. The world is at war. The Allied forces in France are under attack from the Germans, who are closing in on them with every passing minute. The troops have been pushed to the beaches of the French town of Dunkirk. They can ‘practically see home’ on the other side of the Channel, but home is still just in their hopes. Till Operation Dynamo is launched. Destroyers cannot reach the harbour of Dunkirk because the waters are ‘too shallow’. Civilian vessels jump in to rescue these army-men stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk when the British forces realise that they alone cannot see this operation through.
Normally, a country’s army is known to defend its civilians. So when the tables are turned in Dunkirk, Nolan makes you see at once the disappointment on the soldier’s face at having ‘let down’ his countrymen, and the pleasure on the faces of civilians at just seeing their soldiers alive.
“Well done,” says a man distributing blankets to the soldiers once they reach the British bank of the Channel. “We didn’t even do anything. All we did was survive,” responds Alex. “That’s enough,” says the man.
There is no sense of victory among the rescued soldiers. Their faces have disappointment writ large on them. Churchill’s “Wars are not won by evacuations” encapsulates exactly what Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is essentially all about. The film is set in a war zone but it is hardly a war film. It is set as much in the closed, intimate spaces of a soldier’s mind and heart, as it is against the waters of the English Channel. Dunkirk rips you apart at the misery of a soldier who failed at his duty as much as it makes you heave a sigh of relief that they are on shore, safe. Victory in Dunkirk is no victory. If at all, it is Pyrrhic.
Nolan uses three perspectives to tell the story of Dunkirk. In air, there are the excellent Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden behind their masks. On land and sea, there is Nolan’s entire cast comprising Harry Styles, Mark Rylance, Fionn Whitehead and all else. Dunkirk benefits as much from these actors, consummate in their craft, as from Nolan in the director’s chair. He knows what to extract from which actor. A wistful Tom Hardy as he is being taken prisoner, a downcast Harry Styles as their train pulls in to Siding, a determined Kenneth Branagh announcing that he was ‘staying back for the French’, every actor in Nolan’s theatre is a wizard in his craft. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema collaborates with Nolan after 2014’s Interstellar and leaves an indelible impact on you. The haunting background noises of a ticking clock and the German planes whizzing by stay on in your mind long after you are out of Dunkirk. As do Hoytema’s long shots of the water from the air, the devastation on the beaches and even the patch of oil on the sea.
Drop everything and go watch Dunkirk. It is an experience. Not a mere film.