A brutal and unromanticised portrayal of war that favours intensity over the saccharine

Alexander Durie on Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ (2017)

The world outside a cinema, particularly outside an IMAX, usually takes time to adjust to after a screening. A few moments of silence are often needed, to take in and reflect upon what was just witnessed. But few post-film experiences compare to that following Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan‘s immersive and non-stop historical film about the evacuation of British soldiers from the beaches of Northern France between May 26th to June 4th 1940. Even hours following the screening, the constant tick-tock that is sustained like a ticking bomb will continue to resonate and leave you gasping for air.

From Memento (2000), The Prestige (2006), or even Inception (2010) and Interstellar (2014), Nolan has become known for his complex narratives and plot structures. Dunkirk is not dissimilar in this aspect, yet marks a significantly new direction for the cerebral British filmmaker’s repertoire by being the first film adapted from historical events. Although this could have suggested that Nolan substitute his penchant for the intricate with the factual, he has instead opted for a form of subjective storytelling to overlap the different events happening across the Battle of Dunkirk, without sacrificing their emotional weight.

In a recent interview given to Business Insider, the director explained, “I really wanted to be on that beach with those guys. I wanted the audience to feel like they are there. But I also need them and want them to understand what an incredible story this is.” In order to achieve this, Nolan structures his screenplay (only the fourth from his nine films that he has written without his brother Jonathan Nolan) as a triptych: land, sea and air; each assigned the initially enigmatic time periods of ‘one week’, ‘one day’ and ‘one hour’ in the introductory onscreen inter-titles.

Again, we are presented with one of Nolan’s recurrent themes: the construction and reworking of time. Since the Battle of Dunkirk lasted only ten days, yet was a crucial psychological victory for the British, it was clear that each moment that passed around those Northern beaches was significant, and that the survivalist atmosphere heightened their intensity. Dunkirk masterfully exposes this intense race against time from multiple points of view, balancing historical significance through personal perspectives in an engaging cinematic style.

On land, the prolonged silence of the young protagonist soldier, Tommy (played compellingly well by the emerging actor Fionn Whitehead), reveals the vulnerability felt by the soldiers stuck on the Dunkirk beaches. The use of fast-paced editing and the handheld camerawork following Tommy and the other similarly speechless soldier (Damien Bonnard) amply fulfils Nolan’s goal of inducing the audience in the heat of war. Even when we are not surrounded by muted characters or loud explosions, the distrustful attitude of other soldiers adds to the omniscient distress, notably through Harry Styles‘ fiery character, conveyed unexpectedly effectively by the pop-star.

Whether it is between characters, in its composition or musical orchestration, Dunkirk is tirelessly building on a continued tension. Hans Zimmer‘s unending ticking score creates a rising climax that implies no consideration and certainly little hope for a positive ending. As the composer explained to The New York Times: “I have to believe that the tension will be unbearable and the outcome will be tragic, and in a way, I have to pretend they will never get off the beach.” When commissioned to compose this visceral score, Zimmer received — alongside the script — Nolan’s broken wind-up pocket watch that carried an insistent ticking sound. It was this that the haunting score would base itself upon. Mixing this sound on a synthesiser, Zimmer enhanced the atmospheric tension, particularly for the story based inland called “The Mole”, by using an audio illusion called a ‘Shepard tone’ whereby the sound is continually rising in a glissando, like a corkscrew effect, thus perpetuating tension and shaping the film into a commanding thriller.

The notion of constructing scenes in corkscrew effect contributes enormously to the film’s intensity, to the extent that it often hinders the potential for greater psychological conflict. By avoiding regular intervals of explosive emotional release, Dunkirk focuses on the distress and intensity of war through its machinations, instead of leaning towards the saccharine. It is a brutal and unromanticised portrayal of war, closer to Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) than The Thin Red Line (1998). In this sense, the stoic heroism of ordinary people is emphasised, with an ending that balances patriotism with solidarity.

Tom Hardy‘s Spitfire pilot is the epitome of this; like his last performance for Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), we are only shown his resolute stare for most of the film. Yet, Hoyte van Hoytema’s sweeping wide-angle shots and Hans Zimmer’s tantalising score succeed in immersing us in the cockpit. Dunkirk will shake you long after the screening, in large part thanks to Nolan’s technical command of the IMAX 70mm format and his cine-literate awareness of affective technique. IMAX is how Dunkirk was made to be seen and reiterates the importance of perfectionist artistry towards filmmaking, where, like in the film itself, every minute counts.

Dunkirk is showing in cinemas now.

Alexander Durie

By Alexander Durie

Alexander Durie is a Paris-based multimedia journalist, writer, and photographer. His work has been featured in Reuters TV, The New Arab, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The Daily Star Lebanon, Huck Magazine, Are We Europe, Exberliner, and more.