From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.