Review: ‘Dunkirk’

We open on a street, littered with walking soldiers — a frame of muted tones and muted sounds. They look up. Leaflets fall from the sky, red and white, a sinister confetti that shows a map bearing the words “You Are Surrounded”.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a cinematic experience that plays with time and space. As with several of Nolan’s previous titles (Memento [2000], Inception [2010] and Interstellar [2014]), atemporal structuring disturbs a classical cause-and-effect plotline. In Dunkirk, this is used to particularly poignant effect. The three plot strands take place in different locations, and occasionally overlap when the characters from the separate narratives encounter each other. As well as this spatial separation, time is also rendered at differing speeds in each narrative. On the ground (“The Mole”) we primarily follow young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) over the course of a week. In the water (“The Sea”) a father, a son, and a friend steer their boat from England to Dunkirk to help bring a soldier back in a day, and in the air Farrier (Tom Hardy) flies through his narrative in a mere hour. Though the different layers of narrative are potentially confusing, the film’s affective charge allows for a harmonious relationship. The lines bleed into each other succinctly and subtly.

Dunkirk is a ‘historical drama’ in the sense that it is based on a significant moment in British history. Dunkirk is a definitive event in Britain’s historical, cultural consciousness: it has become emblematic of patriotism and courage, giving rise to the term “Dunkirk spirit”. However, although the film is undoubtedly contextually bound, it easily transcends a generic “war-movie” category by resisting an affective and visual fetishization of war. With little dialogue, the camera tells the story as it looks at the pained faces of many men. This absence of verbal communication means that the narrative drive remains firmly in the present, and resists dominant motifs frequently depicted in war movies concerning the desire to return home. For instance, no soldier is trying to get home to see their wife and children and no character is framed as a gleaming hero or unflawed and brave in their fight against all odds. Instead, fear haunts the eyes of all. In particular, the young men on the ground are not courageous in their resilience but desperate to leave the large, sprawling beach. RAF pilot Farrier never verbally communicates more than aviation instructions or information, instead allowing all calmness and all fear to be told with his eyes. His oxygen mask covers the lower half of his face for the duration of the film. It is as through by communicating so much with his eyes, we are permitted to see through them ourselves — the only time the film includes point-of-view shots is from Farrier’s perspective.

Dunkirk’s exquisite form and aesthetic allows for a potentially universal appeal despite its situational specificity. Though peppered with small moments of pride, the film is not a patriotic venture. A couple of times whilst watching it I welled up, because of the way the film indicates the horror of war. The recurring images of soldiers looking up as a plane drops bombs, and of small and sealed rooms that fill with water, convey anxiety and deep sadness. These images are made all the more poignant by Hans Zimmer’s extraordinary soundtrack which sets an ever-anxious mood as the sound of light ticking underscores the action without telling us how we should be feeling. The atemporal structure of the film helps to communicate the trauma of war. Trauma disrupts a subject’s narrative, it fragments linearity in the psyche and memory, and similarly, Nolan’s fragmented strategy of story-telling points to the way war destroys coherence.

The film is released in several formats: digital, IMAX, 35mm, and 70mm projections. Having seen Dunkirk as a 35mm projection, I would recommend this mode. The warmth and softness of film adds another elemental presence. As life is made fleeting and fragile yet worthy of preserving in the lives of the soldiers, so too film becomes a fragile material of time, of recording, that is also worth continuing.  The images of Dunkirk are not super sharp and slick, but almost precarious as figures slip out of focus and our eyes fall upon a swell of water, or a sea of helmets quivering.

James Slattery

Dunkirk is currently showing at the Phoenix Picturehouse in both digital and 35mm projection and  opens at the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford on the 25th of August.

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