Christopher Nolan has always been interested in time: how it passes in Interstellar, how it unfolds in Memento and how it intertwines in Inception. Dunkirk is a natural evolution of this, both in its dramatic structure and its evocation of suspense.
The Dunkirk evacuation was a momentous point in the early stages of the Second World War, and its conclusion is not only a great testament to the solidarity of the people of a nation and its soldiers, but it undoubtedly shaped the coming years of the war, its outcome, and as a consequence, the world we now live in. Germany’s invasion of France pushed the Allied soldiers to the northern coast of the country, leaving more than 400.000 soldiers from the UK, France, and Belgium stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk: only a stone throw away from the English coast (you can see across on a clear day), the Allied soldiers were stuck with enemies at their backs and the Luftwaffe in the air, awaiting evacuation by sea.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is structured around three different stories, with three different timelines. We follow a small group of soldiers (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles) on the beaches for One Week; an English fisherman (Mark Rylance) at sea for One Day; and two RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) in the air for One Hour. These stories are interconnected in different ways, and when a character from one story suddenly shows up in another, it plays with your perception of time, and expectation of events. They are ingeniously structured and composed in and around one another, and Nolan’s restrained ability to weave them together to bigger and lesser extents is a testament to his directorial craftsmanship. It could have easily fallen into the trappings of cliché and predictability, in which the cross cuts in time and space builds to a huge confrontation or turning point, but Nolan manages to play it all out as naturally and assuredly as one has come to expect from him over the years.
This is how Nolan has decided to play with time structurally this time around, but time is also present in the overall narrative – in which the Allied soldiers are trapped, death or capture only a matter of when; the civilian and military boats racing across the sea, with the pilots in the air counting down the minutes until they have to turn back to refuel. Time is also present in Hans Zimmer’s composition, and it is through this symphony of clocks that the whole movie comes together to form a tick-of-the-clock masterpiece. Zimmer’s music is always ticking (tick-tick-tick-tick), in swells of orchestral bombardment, in moments of absolute quiet; moments in which we and the people we witness can only wait – wait for the bombs to drop, for the bullets to hit, for the boats to sink. It becomes suspense above chaos, tension above mayhem.
Nolan’s approach to the constant threat from the skies is almost laconic; there is a dismal, prophetic silence in the moments between attacks. It strikes me more with a dread akin to cosmological horror than any military or aggressive fear. The threat looms high above, obscured by the clouds, hidden beneath the surface, all out of sight until it is too late. The men on the mole – which they have to use to board the bigger boats – are literally stuck in a line like fish in a barrel. They are open target practice for the planes that swoop from the clouds. On the boats, a torpedo can burst through the hull at any moment and sink the entire vessel, with the men and women locked inside. For the RAF pilots, the enemy can strike from any direction – above or below, right or left, behind or in front – and the ocean underneath is an endless cold and hard surface ready to swallow the tiny metal container should it fall from the skies.
One of the RAF pilots is played by Tom Hardy, who has all but his eyes covered by a mask for most of the runtime, and what eyes they are. Hardy’s eyes are a dreamer’s eyes, a philosopher’s eyes. They express more somber determinism and emotional weight than most actors can do with all their facilities at the ready. It can seem like a pompous, pretentious or flowery description of his performance here, but it is deserved. The entire cast is excellent, really, with Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard as two highlights. Mark Rylance is as earnest as ever, and Harry Styles should make anyone and everyone forget their initial skepticism immediately.
Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography really shines as well and is as core to the movie as Nolan’s direction and Zimmer’s music. He captures the vast nakedness of the ocean in a way that transports you to it. As he soars over the beach, the boats or side by side with the planes, the enormousness of it cannot be lost. At times his compositions feel like the more restrained and quiet paintings of Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky; the blues and grays and whites melt together to form pictures of aesthetic beauty that never feel overblown, nor does Hoytema fall over into kitsch. Not to take any credit away from Nolan’s former partner, Wally Pfister, Hoytema’s sensibilities as a cinematographer seem to compliment Nolan much more fluently. While Pfister’s movies all look beautiful and confident, there is something to Hoytema’s work that feels more at home.
Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is not a traditional war movie. It doesn’t toss us out on a battlefield of bullets, explosions, and gore; it isn’t filled with singular moments of spectacular pathos or triumphant patriotism. Rather, it is a quiet tick-of-the-clock suspense film that allows moments of personal stories and experiences to transcend; he allows these stories to speak for every soldier that was on the beach, every civilian at sea, every pilot in the air. Nolan doesn’t draw backstories for his characters, nor does he let them talk very much, be it exposition or drama, because he isn’t interested in a traditional narrative with caricatures of heroes and villains. He isn’t interested in individual tragedy in which we cry because our favorite characters die or lose a friend. Nolan shows us the act and the concept of war, and it is this that makes you cry in Dunkirk; Nolan’s interest here, the tragedy that is war.