Dunkirk was at number thirteen on the Guardian’s Top 20 films of 2017. It has just won a BAFTA for Best Sound. It also received a nomination for the Golden Globe Best Film of 2017, as did the director, Christopher Nolan, and the music, composed by Hans Zimmer. It has eight Oscar nominations, including for Best Film, Best Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Music. It is an immersive account of the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, designed and directed to have an impact on the audience similar to actually being there in the chaos and confusion. This saga is an unlikely candidate for a major Hollywood production, especially one written and directed by the maker of the Dark Knight trilogy. It’s hard to think of a more parochial tale. Something about Dunkirk, though, appeals to the peculiar British love of the gallantly narrow squeak, and, in the deployment of the Little Ships, to an abiding fondness for the doughty and the makeshift. You can understand Nolan’s interest; born in London, in 1970, he belongs to what is probably the last generation to have been reared on the rousing fable of the Dunkirk spirit. Why on earth, however, should he want to spread the word?
Nolan has described Dunkirk as less a war film than a survival film, but it’s even more basic than that, in the way it lures us in and keeps us hooked. It is about what we do when things happen to us, and when the happening grows far beyond our control. There is plenty of agency here, much of it valiant, not least in Farrier’s dogfights, but the focus is on the inflicted; aside from a few shadowy forms in the closing minutes, no Germans are visible at all. Look at the British who hide in the belly of a beached fishing boat, which unseen enemy troops are using for target practice. Look at the evacuees on the Mole, turning their backs as a bomb bursts nearby and being caught in the gust of spray; we don’t actually witness the explosion, any more than they do. We need to feel their fear.
And so the fates keep drumming down like rain. By constantly cutting between the three stories, Nolan, the master of all he surveys, allows us no chance to relax before the next onslaught begins. Although Dunkirk is not as labyrinthine as Nolan’s Memento (2000) or Inception (2010), its strike rate upon our senses is rarely in doubt, and there is a beautiful justice in watching it end, as it has to, in flames. Land, sea, air, and, finally, fire: the elements are complete, honor is salvaged, and the men who were lost scrape home.
Venue: William Loveless Hall