My cinematic vocabulary and learning includes a large array of Christopher Nolan’s pieces and it started the day I first fell in love with his film Memento. So his critique (whenever I can muster some), comes with a lot of heartache and some angst thrown right in there. I had waited with more than baited breath to finally buy my tickets and keep the long-awaited date with Dunkirk. I expected the world from this experience, which includes my flights of fantasy. This is typical fare when I watch Nolan or another one of my favorites, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, both of whom make me fly when they create cinematic magic.
Being introduced to an event from World War II that marked the psyche of how the British (and possibly the French) remember the War, the film depicts the personal nature of that rescue of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from a beach in France. The story is pretty well known, and the rescue was recorded for the history books multiple times. So what was Nolan going to do with it?
His stroke of early brilliance comes with a play with time. He splits the narrative into three: The Mole – a week-long arduous rescue that happens on land (the beach). The Sea – the day long journey over water, by a British national (played by Mark Rylance), who lost a son in the war and felt that his personal boat was better used rescuing people from the French coast than being stationed on British shores. And finally the Air – the hour long descent of the RAF Spitfires, who are headed to Dunkirk to support their comrades.
The set up couldn’t have been more classic Nolan. Time has been at play many times in his films, but the simultaneity of three narratives, told at the same time but spanning different durations was close to genius. There is also someone else who deserves more credit than Nolan for the time play. The editor Lee Smith did a brilliant job at perfecting the fluidity with which the narrative moves and interweaves between the three parts.
The absence of dialogue turned out to be such an incredibly pertinent choice for a war drama. Doesn’t war and its pain speak for itself? Do I need to ask how a soldier stranded on a beach, desperate to be rescued, while the enemy corners it, feels? Do I need to hear frustration in their voices? The pain, the longing and oftentimes the surge of nationalism, where even the Allied French soldiers are branded ‘others’, when there is no more room on a British rescue vessel, is told visually. The expansive music by Hans Zimmer, that dances decadently with the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, is really stuff of cinematic genius.
I wish I could have been satiated by the insatiable (foley) sounds from the falling sand after an explosion or the moving bodies, as they struggle for room on a rapidly drowning boat. And I wished there was no but to this film!
Nolan seemed to spend so much time on structure, on form, on trying to make my senses respond to the imagery and the music, that he lost me on what the human story was really about. A friend disagreeing with my disappointment with the film argued that a war doesn’t need human stories, it’s a story of a collective. You connect with (in)humanity as a whole, in the meaninglessness of war.
I couldn’t disagree more. The meaninglessness of war was conveyed just as brilliantly by Anthony Minghella in The English Patient and he didn’t have hundreds of thousands of soldiers in his frames. I just didn’t connect with the soldiers that Nolan had written. There was emotional repetition throughout the length of the film. There was a banality to the private boats that Churchill sent in place of battleships for the rescue effort. There was passive acceptance by the desperate soldiers frustrated with their own military, which stayed protecting the shores of Britain and thus couldn’t come out to rescue its men. There was an utterly illogical explanation of how the RAF Spitfire being flown (by Tom Hardy) kept cruising perpetually and managed to strike German fighters, even after it had run out of fuel.
The moment that the film finally spoke to me was when the commanding officer of the pier, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), turned down the offer to be rescued, as he would stay behind for French soldiers who were escaping the Nazis. But that moment, though heartwarming, just wasn’t enough.
Dunkirk is now playing in theatres.