“There’s no such thing as an anti-war film” is a quote attributed to the late French filmmaker François Truffaut, suggesting that war and conflict is inevitably glorified in its depiction. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk finds a way to subvert this claim. His portrait of the fabled World War Two evacuation does not romanticise war or fetish violence. Instead it displays the bravery and resolve of over 400,000 Allied troops, many of which never made it home.
From the very outset you can hear the sound of a ticking stopwatch, of time running out. For if the Allied forces don’t escape France soon, they shall be massacred. It is apt then that the plot of Dunkirk incorporates time so deeply. There are three different perspectives shown in the 100 minute length, the first of which is entitled ‘The Mole’. This thread of the narrative structure details the week long land based evacuation centering around a young Private called Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). The second thread is called ‘The Sea’ and takes place over a single day. Mark Rylance plays the owner of a pleasure boat who, rather than let the Navy requisition his ship, sets sail for Dunkirk himself accompanied by his son and boat hand. Finally, ‘The Air’. This is but an hour. That’s how long Farrier (Tom Hardy) can provide air support in his Spitfire with a full tank of fuel.
Incredibly, all three of these perspectives are interwoven together, converging on a single moment. The scale of this, Nolan’s tenth feature, is awe-inspiring. From the wing of a Spitfire to the largest naval film shoot in history — including a 350-foot French destroyer from a museum in Nantes — his insistence of realism over computer generation bring us to within almost touching distance of the conflict. The dogfights especially were a technical marvel.
For the soundtrack to the film, Nolan turned once again to his long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer. In order to achieve the unrelenting tension and unease, Zimmer made use of an auditory illusion, the Shepard-Risset glissando. Put simply it is three versions of the same scale, each one octave apart. The high scales starts loud and gets quieter, the middle scale stay a constant volume, and the lower scale starts quiet and gets louder. Your brain is tricked into thinking the scale is continuously rising. Add in the sound of a ticking clock and the result in an ever-increasing sense of unease, pushing the narrative forward with it.
This minimalistic ethos seeped into other areas of production too, namely the dialogue. Harry Styles, who was the standout performance, speaks maybe 40 lines, leaving the visuals to throw the psychological punches. Yet the events of those days are dealt with using a surprising candour. A scene of one soldier taking off his gear and marching into the sea and to his death was met with silence, except for the inescapable tick tock of time.
The magnitude of Dunkirk is tremendous, but there is an unforgettable intimacy shared with those men. Their desperation to survive is haunting, with each death as heart-rending as the last. It is a breathtaking experience, Nolan’s crowning jewel in a catalogue of cinematic excellence.