6 January 2018
I can’t remember a Christopher Nolan film that ever disappointed. Audiences are of course very familiar with the ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy, but should delve deeper into Nolan’s catalogue with offerings such as ‘Memento’ (Guy Pearce), ‘Insomnia’ (Robin Williams and Al Pacino) and of course my personal favorite, ‘The Prestige’ (Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale). A close viewing of these films will allow you to fully appreciate Nolan’s ability as a masterclass filmmaker and Dunkirk is no exception. It is a film that was not only directed, but written and produced by Nolan as well. Unlike his previous films, the World War II events that took place at Dunkirk in May of 1940 are embedded in history, making it an authentic and compelling piece of storytelling made even more powerful by the fact that the film was mostly shot on location at Dunkerque, France.
Since the outbreak of war in 1939, the Nazi’s had mastered a combat tactic known as Blitzkreig or ‘Lightning War’ that had seen a succession of countries quickly fall such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and now France. So sudden was the advance that the British and French rear guard quickly found themselves surrounded and cornered at the coastal city of Dunkirk in Northern France and were literally being pushed into the sea with nowhere to go. The film begins with propaganda in the form of handbills falling from the sky that remind trapped troops that they are surrounded and that resistance is futile. Fionn Whitehead plays Tommy, a private who quickly collects some of the leaflets thinking to put them to more effective use as toilet paper!
The iconic white cliffs of Dover and Dorset are within view but the evacuation is seemingly doomed as the waters are too shallow for larger ships to anchor. At their disposal is a thin jetty known as ‘The Mole’ that stretches out to see and which is crammed with soldiers who are desperate to escape. Their plight is made even more harrowing by German Stukas with their inimitable notorious scream coined the ‘sirens of death’, which indiscriminately dive bomb with destructive precision. All would have been lost if not for the selfless actions of the ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk.
A British soldier removes his head from the sand after another Stuka fly by and infuriatingly exclaims, “Where’s the bloody air force” in this madness? The historical role of the RAF at Dunkirk was a limited one and for good reason as aircraft needed to be placed in reserve for the impending Battle of Britain. That said, Nolan is determined to cast the RAF in a swashbuckling light and engages the services of Tom Hardy to play Farrier, a Supermarine Spitfire pilot who is flying “…The greatest plane ever built [fitted with] Rolls-Royce Merlin Engines. The sweetest sound you could hear out here”, notes Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson. The feats of the Spitfire are legendary and were the envy of even the Luftwaffe.
Farrier is flying a sortie across the channel to Dunkirk to provide air cover. Hardy once again reprises his mask wearing, Bane-esque (thankfully his on our side this time) role while spending 99% of his screen time in the confines of a cockpit. Viewers must be well trained to carefully watch his eyes to gauge his expressions and thoughts. However, Hardy has this patented screen aura and it is little wonder that he has earned a reputation as Nolan’s muse in ‘Inception’, ‘Dark Knight Rises’ and now ‘Dunkirk’. Farrier’s final radio instructions are from his Squadron Leader and another Nolan regular, Michael Caine, who cautions him to watch his fuel meter ensuring that there is enough in reserve to return home to England. Caine’s voice cameo is a fitting inclusion as soon after the evacuation of over 335,000 soldiers from Dunkirk in May of 1940 the Battle of Britain would begin in July of the same year and Caine would play Squadron Leader Canfield in the film of the same name. Perhaps Nolan’s next project should be a remake of this 1969 classic.
At the core of this movie is the civilian flotilla also fondly known as the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’ who came to the rescue of the stranded soldiers. Some 850 boats and their sometime sailor crews sailed across the channel putting aside personal safety as they venture into a war zone that is heavily patrolled by German U-boat submarines, Fighter Messerschmitt squadrons and Stuka Dive Bombers. Their courage, but compulsion to bring their boys home to fight another day is admirable and best portrayed by the 3-man crew of the Moonstone, and who can hardly be described as men, but instead as Mr. Dawson, his son Peter and his friend George. It is Mr. Dawson played by Mark Rylance who once again delivers an understated supporting role, not dissimilar to his Academy Award winning supporting performance in Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’. His deft seamanship is demonstrated during a near miss attack involving a Messerschmitt, which Dawson correctly identifies technically as a “Me 109”. The scene is made more memorable through use of a tension filled soundtrack and that it is juxtaposed against another sequence involving Farrier’s deft airmanship and a Stuka. Whilst Mr. Dawson’s maneuver may appear to be simply a matter of timing, it nevertheless saves the lives of his crew and passengers. Yet it’s the dialogue afterwards that is part of the brilliant craft of Nolan’s poignant filmmaking and screen writing:
Collins: “How’d you know that stuff, anyway?
Mr. Dawson: My son’s one of you lot. I knew he’d see us through.
(Mr. Dawson moves to one of his passengers who is a shivering shell-shocked soldier and gently ushers him below deck.)
Collins: (mistakenly to Peter) You’re RAF?
Peter: No. Not me. My brother. He flew Hurricanes. Died third week into the war”.
The words are filled with pathos and an undertone, which speaks volumes about the characters who now glow before the audience, as we see and feel for them in a whole new other light.
Layered into this end part of the film is an orchestral movement titled Variation 15 (Dunkirk) by Benjamin Wallfisch and is merged with Sir Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. Nolan admits in the sleeve notes of the score, “[Nimrod is] a theme which…I am incapable of hearing without feeling the surprising weight of my father’s coffin on my shoulder”. This moving admission from the auteur is again filled with pathos but Nimrod is as much a part of the British psyche as is Dunkirk, which yes was a retreat of sorts, but there is a dignity in this defeat and an undertaking to “…prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone”.
The film concludes with this inspiring speech from the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. The speech is often referred to as “We shall fight on the beaches” and it is being read aloud by now returned soldier private Tommy from a daily newspaper during the finale of the film. It may seem unconventional to conclude the film in this manner, but Churchill’s words are rousing and define true leadership in times of crisis, which puts the world leaders of today to shame. The words resonate as the credits roll and are far more powerful and potent than any button that resides under the desk of some phony world leader. And yet in Churchill’s speech there is still hope for us all in that one day the vanquished will be finally free from tyranny:
“…We shall go on to the end…we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be…we shall never surrender and even if this island…were subjugated and starving then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old”.