Director: Christopher Nolan
Talent: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles
Released: 21st July
A word recurrently came to mind as I watched Christopher Nolan’s newest film, his 10th feature to date. That word was ‘threnody’. A threnody, like an elegy, is an ode to the dead, but unlike an elegy, which can be purely verbal, a threnody is always accompanied by, or is primarily in the form of, musical instrumentation.
Put otherwise, Hans Zimmer’s musical score for Dunkirk is hypnotically unremitting, and constitutes one of the most important features of this highly arresting, adrenaline-inducing film. The silence is never complete – at its quietest moments, in the brief pauses between explosions and gunshots, you can still hear the score ticking like a clock-face, preventing either the film’s momentum or the audience’s emotional frequency from ever dropping completely. Think Birdman, but rather than the playful chaos of improvisatory drumming, imagine instead an orchestral siren building continually, paralleling the movement of the ocean that rises along the eponymous beach.
For a de facto war film, Dunkirk is an anomaly. Firstly, it deals with a period of World War II largely excluded from traditional cultural representation, being neither a cautionary Holocaust tale, nor an Allies success story. This is 1940, when Germany seem destined to win World War II. France is being evacuated of Allied forces. Though roughly 400,000 British soldiers await extraction on the beaches, caught in the German military’s tightening noose, the UK government withhold the majority of their air and naval forces, fearing an imminent invasion on their own shores. In short, triumph is a long way away.
Secondly, though the stage is global, the plot is minimal: pursuing three narrative strands, we follow a handful of soldiers across a period of roughly 48 hours. Some are on the beach (including the characters played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Banard and Harry Styles) while others pilot aircraft in the sky (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) but all are readying themselves for an unlikely rescue by civilian boats (peopled by the likes of Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan and Bobby Lockwood). This event is not fictionalized – a large number of pleasure yachts, dinghies, private-business crafts, etc. really did set sail from Ramsgate in the south of England, called on by a UK government desperate for boats with shallow hulls, capable of landing on flat coastline.
Thirdly, and perhaps most intriguingly, we never actually catch a glimpse of German soldiery, but witness only their effects, as their bullets tear flesh from bone, and their bombs destroy precious ships laden with the wounded, consigning hundreds to drown in one fell swoop.
And yet, though the agony of survival is the theme most alive for any audience member that watches this film, keeping you on the edge of your seat for 120 minutes as Zimmer’s score, unabated, provides a tempo for your sweating palms and gasped inhalations, the film’s final message is triumphant, despite the elegiac material. The truth, incredibly, is that the civilian fleet managed to save over three quarters of the total force awaiting extraction.
Beautifully lit by Interstellar and Spectre cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema, Dunkirk is a film that seeks to remind its public of something quite remarkable, and perhaps even prescient: success is never quite as sweet as when stolen from the jaws of defeat.
Words – Tom Lordan
Illustration – Steve Doogan