In Adventures in the Screen Trade, an essential book for anyone interested in the writing and making of films, William Goldman describes the challenge of adapting A Bridge Too Far into a screenplay as being what to leave out. For Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan focuses on a soldier, two pilots and one little ship as they go from moment to moment during the evacuation of more than 300,000 soldiers from an isolated and surrounded harbour.
The triptych begins with young British private Tommy heading towards the Dunkirk beach with several other soldiers. And switches in a non-linear fashion between his attempts to leave France with the other characters journeying towards it. As The Mole covers the events of the East Mole pier itself, The Sea concerns itself with the little ship owned by Mr Dawson and crewed by son Peter and deckhand George. Meanwhile The Air is the story of two Spitfire pilots flying towards the oncoming Luftwaffe fighters and bombers.
It makes sense to focus on the immediacy of the evacuation and aerial battles. Dunkirk was a triumph of spirit and courage, but the events leading to it were described as a ‘colossal military disaster’ by Churchill as the Germans drove across Europe in just a couple of months. Unlike Operation Market Garden, however, the evacuation efforts are still celebrated today, particularly in the main little ships port of Ramsgate.
And Dunkirk is a successful film in many ways. The realism has been praised by many, including Dunkirk veterans. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hotema looks incredible, and helps to portray the horror of the events without the use of blood. Despite the Luftwaffe and U-Boat attacks on the beach and ships, the film manages to convey the chaos and deadliness of the situation whilst still falling into a 12A rating.
Both the Hans Zimmer score and the sound effects work wonderfully to provide a backdrop which captures the wonderous sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin engines of the Spitfires, the terrible foreboding of a dive bomber attack and the various explosions and crunching metal which occur.
But it’s not perfect. The decision to use a non-linear structure which stretches and plays around with time is something associated with Christopher Nolan since his breakthrough with Memento. And it’s harder to follow in the chaos of war. Cillian Murphy first appears as a shivering, shell-shocked soldier huddled on a mid-channel wreck, but later appears as a forceful boat commander earlier in proceedings elsewhere. And the sacrifice of one leading character is dragged out long enough for boats to have journeyed back from Dunkirk to England by the time it ends, which makes it feel much less climactic than it might have done.
The time motif also interferes slightly with the soundtrack. The script was written to include an auditory illusion known as a Shephard tone, which Nolan has used in The Prestige, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns. And while that works, it was coupled with the sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch, which occasionally appears as if the characters are on some kind of timer. It’s not only irritating, but given that the actual evacuation lasted from May 27th to June 4th, 1940, it also doesn’t really make much sense.
While the decision to focus on the immediate situation also makes sense to avoid bogging the film down in back story or the political and military decisions in London, it also risks making the characters too enigmatic to really care about. The casting of Harry Styles made the headlines, but none of the soldiers are required to portray much emotion in their roles, while pilots Collins and Farrier are mostly hidden behind their oxygen masks. As a result it’s Scottish actor Jack Lowden as Collins who the audience can sympathise with more than Tom Hardy as Farrier.
None of the actors turn in a bad performance, and there’s a hidden cameo by Michael Caine as the RAF officer on the radio to the Spitfire pilots. It’s just that you never really get much opportunity to know the likes of Fionn Whitehead as Tommy or Aneurin Barnard as Gibson. Which puts them at a bit of a disadvantage compared to the likes of Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson. And particularly Kenneth Branagh, who spends his time standing stoically at the end of the East Mole as Navy Commander Bolton, the pier-master of the evacuation.
One criticism that does seem valid is the portrayal of non-British forces. Nolan insisted on an almost entirely British cast, and the film obviously takes that perspective. The French are seen being refused access to British evacuation ships, or as a character pretending to be English, and there’s one lone Dutchman attempting a rescue. In reality, there were ships from Belgium, Holland, France and other European countries. And while many of the 100,000 Frenchmen eventually evacuated were redeployed to face battle a few weeks later before the surrender of France, there’s no mention of the French forces who fought a delaying action to allow the evacuation to take place.
Overall, there’s a lot to praise about Dunkirk. It doesn’t use the war to convey a political message or risk becoming cloying with emotion. Instead, it has probably the best aerial dogfights captured since the 1930 Howard Hughes film Hell’s Angels. And rather than bloodshed or imposing a narrative, it relies on moments inspired by real experiences, such as men deciding to wade hopelessly into the sea, as some of the main characters look on impassively. It’s a wartime event delivered as an Impressionist study rather than a Boy’s Own tale of derring-do. And while it’s admirable for the range of technical brilliance on show, it still doesn’t distract you from the tragedy and horror at the core of Dunkirk.