One week, one day, one hour. For the first time in his career, writer/director Christopher Nolan uses his twist not as a gotcha storytelling gimmick, but a legitimately interesting structure to build tension, suspense, and terror over the historical events of the evacuation of Dunkirk, France during World War II.
The story of Dunkirk is of three interwoven timelines. The first is the story of a week on the beach of Dunkirk where Tommy (Fionna Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles) wait for rescue: scrounging for water, cowering from German bomb runs, and trying to slip onto ships filled with wounded soldiers.
The second story is the day on a civilian boat where Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) sail towards the coast of Dunkirk to rescue soldiers.
The third story is an hour in the skies as Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) attempt to protect British boats from German bombing runs in Spitfires never meant for long-range combat runs.
Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut freely between these timelines to build a complex compounding of events where things previously seen are then seen again through another angle that sheds new light on the experience. Suddenly the ship bombed in one storyline is the same ship one character is swimming towards in the vain hope of rescue in another storyline.
And it works. Here the editing is used to build suspense and emotional payoff. When you realize certain moments are coming, like the capsizing bombed ship, it makes for both the suspense to the fate of the character and the emotional experience of knowing his situation has become even bleaker. The editing isn’t flawless; like a lot of Nolan movies, the film is peppered with glaring continuity problems and disorienting cuts.
Coupled with the editing is the aspect ratio. The IMAX 1.43 is Nolan’s favorite but this critic was only able to see it at 1.90 aspect ratio. Even then, it’s far more tight and claustrophobic than the more common 2.35 aspect ratio. There are also few establishing shots, making for a constant sense that the viewer is trapped alongside the soldiers.
Dunkirk is surprisingly light on dialogue. Many sequences play without a spoken word and it works. There’s a building silent dread, this deathly resignation that talk is pointless. And as the film builds, the film becomes deafening from the bombings and screaming. The sound is possibly the strongest technical feat of the film.
Combined the editing, framing and sound design with Hans Zimmer’s abrasive score and Dunkirk is this effectively oppressive wartime film. Zimmer has become more irate in his compositions and Dunkirk leverages that in order to contribute to the sensory assault as the film builds. It’s a great example of a score that works in the context of the film.
Because of all of these elements, the PG-13 rating is almost a non-issue. The lack of gore or f-words is hardly felt. This film doesn’t need it because the story is not about the carnage of war but the psychological battle that bit by bit chops away at the psyche of the soldiers. It’s the idea that terrifies, the implication of a German army that at any moment could roll over the ridge and wipe out the British and the French.
Dunkirk is reminiscent of Kanal, Andrzej Wajda’s film about WWII Polish resistance fighters attempting to escape German occupied Warsaw through the sewer systems. The sense of claustrophobia, the long, wordless sequences, and the growing sense of dread all evoke similar feelings and emotions that are achieved in the best moments of Dunkirk.
But on its own two feet, the film stands as a different kind of war film which employs non-linear editing to build a strong cinematic experience. Dunkirk leverages Nolan’s best qualities while skirting past most of his problematic tendencies. It’s easily his finest film and shows an amount of discipline and restraint that hopefully signals more mature work in his future career.
© James Blake Ewing 2017