Seventy-seven years after the fact, Christopher Nolan tells the World War II story you’ve never heard. Dunkirk is the gripping tale of Europe’s last best hope, stranded on the shores of France, although it’s a stone’s throw from Belgium, awaiting rescue not from a naval fleet, but by an armada of civilian schooners and pleasure cruisers. We follow nameless soldiers caught in the midst of a military disaster, where the only possible form of heroism is survival.
Dunkirk pulses with an anxious heartbeat, from which there is no relief until the protagonists have found their resting places, be it on a train charioting them home, or in a shallow grave on a Belgian beach. A subtle ticking sound persists throughout the movie, mimicking an elevated heart rate, interrupted only by the rhythmic shockwave of bombs. Our sense of time is suspended in a frenzy. There is no easy introduction to this tension or lull in the midst of the action. From the first moments, we are cornered, just like the boys on the beach, and the film refuses to let us go. We are taught early on that just because we are following a character does not mean he will live. In retreat, the sea is as deadly as a Messerschmitt.
In a film that favors harrowed facial expressions over dialogue and exposition, the incomparably talented cast delivers nuanced performances that show more than they tell. Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy have become for Nolan what Samuel L. Jackson is to Quentin Tarantino. Dignity emanates naturally from the accomplished Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh, but even the younger actors, including film-newcomer Harry Stiles, brilliantly inhabit their roles as wearied servicemen. Their performances give a face to the trauma of conflict and paint an intimate picture of the human perseverance against death.
Famous for his summer thrillers like The Dark Knight (2008) and Interstellar (2014), Nolan’s dramatization of one of the lowest moments in British military history may finally earn him the awards that have eluded him. Though he received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Inception (2010) and Memento (2000), he was awarded none and has been decorated far less than what the critical acclaim and commercial success of his films would suggest. Dunkirk, however, stands out as a potentially legendary piece of filmmaking. Nolan maintains his trademark commitment to suspenseful action and stunning visuals, but this time, he has a film with a truly significant subject matter.
Realism drives his direction and cinematography, and yet the imagery remains haunting and otherworldly. Purgatory is a bright, frothy expanse of beach, which affords a squinting view of salvation. Floating bodies are nudged through the tide like planks of wood. Screams from bullet wounds must be muzzled, so as not to give away one’s position. A lesser director would have bombarded audiences with gore; all that Nolan needs to encapsulate the horror of war is the bloodied knuckles of a teenager in uniform.
In spite of its grit, the film convinces us that there is hope for the helpless, and the promise of the home is rewarding enough to get common men to do uncommon things. Desperation gives way to resourcefulness more often than cruelty. The humiliation of the retreat is overshadowed by the humanity of the soldiers and the bravery of their rescue parties. History must now take notice that liberation of Europe is owed, in part, to a few fishermen from Dover.