(USA/UK/Netherlands/France, 106 min.)
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Jack Lowden, Barry Keoghan, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Glynn-Carney, Harry Styles
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
The clock keeps ticking in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Every second counts in this intense tour de force. Dunkirk is a pulse-pounding drama that realises the evacuation of British soldiers at Dunkirk by land, air, and sea. The film weaves together three narrative threads about the soldiers on the beach, the civilians in the boats, and the fighters in the air as they all work together to bring one another safely home. Breathless entertainment, Dunkirk is, but it’s foremost an intricately crafted drama about the collective struggle in wartime.
Nolan rebounds after the disappointing space saga Interstellar with this drama that combines the technical bravura of Inception with the narrative sophistication of Memento. On land are the men in “The Mole,” a storyline that covers the scope of the evacuation in duration and in the sheer volume of men—some 400,000 soldiers—waiting for a ride home. The central guide in this story is Tommy (newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who emerges as the lone survivor of a group of soldiers from one of the most breakneck and disorienting opening sequences in recent memory.
Once he escapes the sandbags of the streets, the beach of Dunkirk is his waiting dock as he befriends a silent soldier (Aneurin Barnard) and navigates the throngs of men, including One Direction pop star Harry Styles (who makes a respectable big screen debut as part of the ensemble), to secure a spot on the boats home. Guiding the chaos and holding back the desperate soldiers is Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) who sees ship upon ship sink mere metres from the pier (or “mole”) that bridges the shore and survival. This storyline dramatizes one of the dirtier sides of war: the cocktail of malaise, desperation, and panic that arises when men have little to do but wait to die or to be saved. The adrenaline nearly sweats off the screen.
There are everyday heroes in each of the threads, but it’s in the second narrative, “The Sea,” that Dunkirk finds a through line of humanity. Mr. Dawson (Oscar winner Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies) is one of the many Brits whose leisure boat has been commissioned by the Navy for the war effort. A salty man of the sea and an old school soldier for his majesty’s war effort, Dawson opts to helm his own boat and bring back the boys of Britain. Joined by his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and Peter’s mate George (Barry Keoghan), Dawson helms the boat through rocky waters as the fighters zip over the air.
The seamen get their first taste of Dunkirk’s tragedy when they discover a survivor (Cillian Murphy) atop some wreckage. This shell-shocked soldier becomes the first notable intersection between the two storylines. When Dunkirk cuts to the man when he’s safe and dry with a boat full of men, the aftershocks of the soldier’s trauma rock the film with an urgent sense of just how quickly a young life can be cut down in battle. The sturdy Dawson mediates the soldier’s fear with empathy and instils within the boat a sense of duty and compassion to save the boys who weren’t as fortunate as he was.
As Dawson and company sail into the thick of battle, so too do the pilots above in storyline three, “The Sky,” fly into dangerous territory. Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) manoeuvre between clouds and airships in a breathtaking airborne ballet thanks to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema's fearlessly dazzling work. Time becomes a palpable enemy here just as it is on the beaches of “The Mole” as fuel dwindles by the second as the pilots risk their lives to finagle their way out of enemy sightlines and shoot down the bombers that aim to sink the boats beneath them.
Dunkirk uses three different time frames for each of the threads that intersect. The men on the shore spend a full week in agony waiting for rescue, the men on the boats spend one day ferrying from the coast of Britain to the beach at Dunkirk, and the pilots of the air force fly above all of them for one white-knuckler of an hour. The intricate plotting of Dunkirk unfolds like a battle plan that moves all of its pieces in check, gradually building a line of defense while the sharpest soldiers bide their time for the sneak attack. The fractured storyline and chronology of the threads leaves one unable to distinguish the pawns from the king, though, and the film weaves the three stories together to create a united front between the men of the land, air, and sea.
Nolan’s regular editor Lee Smith cuts between the storylines with a precision that exacts every nerve and thrusts the audience into the mindset of a team that must work together to stay alive. More sophisticated than Inception, this layered puzzle extends and contracts time to thrust one into the collective fight for survival. As the adrenaline-pumping score by Hans Zimmer ticks away the seconds through shrewd and nerve-wracking use of a metronome, Dunkirk becomes fully alert to the urgency of time as the men await their evacuation. The clock ticks away each and cut from one timeframe to another brings further evidence of death and heroism alike: no man is safe, but just as easily as a soldier can be shot down in a second, heroes rise with swift courage.
The ensemble works together like a band of brothers. Dunkirk benefits from having few familiar faces and while the stature of star status lends some authority to the characters played by Hardy, Branagh, and Murphy, the relative anonymity of the younger boys gives their plight a universal push. Rylance’s performance is central to Dunkirk’s earnest yearning for better times of humanity and compassion. The seasoned actor wears Dawson’s courage with fatherly pride and the scenes in which he reasons with his son and the lone soldier are the heart that keeps Dunkirk alive by creating an emotional link to the men who don’t find their ways to the boat. This film tells the story of a specific evacuation, but it’s really about the better days of Britain when people stood by their countrymen through the worst of times regardless of their experiences or differences.