There are things Christopher Nolan likes – one of his odder quirks is landscapes strewn with identical hats, an image both surreal and ominous. It’s the first thing you see in his film of The Prestige … and, with army helmets rather than magicians’ toppers, it’s one of the last images in Dunkirk. Another thing the writer-director almost uniquely loves is IMAX – in an era where widescreen TVs mean that anything shot in the ultrahugebiggovision of IMAX tends to dwindle into the plain old Academy frame with black bars to the sides, few are as willing to embrace the form the way Nolan does. He hasn’t yet achieved his obvious goal of making a whole movie in IMAX – this defaults to 65mm widescreen whenever important talk has to be exchanged, since dialogue recording in IMAX is still problematic – but Dunkirk gets nearer than any other movie. This imposes a demand that almost none of the talk be significant, and so this is less a historical drama – Navy man Kenneth Branagh and pukka army type James D’Arcy stride about as if this were the John Mills 1958 film, but they’re not the focus of the story – than an impression of what it was like during the chaotic retreat and heroic rescue, when it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the defeated army ferried home in small boats wouldn’t be spat on in the streets rather than given nice cups of tea and bottles of beer by a grateful public.
We first see a bunch of anonymous tommies walking down a Dunkirk street in a swirl of German propaganda leaflets, then German sniper fire drops most of them and the film’s de facto lead Fionn Whitehead – billed as Tommy, though whether that’s his character name or just a label is moot – emerges simply by surviving and getting to the beach where queues of English (and French) soldiers await evacuation and German planes periodically strafe and bomb the lines. Throughout, the film is about survival – and the question of whether that’s enough of an achievement to be celebrated in a big budget movie like this. For a start, Tommy spends much of the film trying to find a way to jump the queue and get on a rescue boat by fair means or foul … and he’s joined by Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), whose name definitely isn’t Gibson since we meet him stealing a uniform and tags from a dead soldier, who has a reason for not speaking unconnected with the rigours of shooting in IMAX. Tommy and Gibson pick up a (dead?) man in a stretcher and use that to hustle along a crowded pier (‘the Mole’) to get on the boat evaccing casualties … they are turned away, but hang on, find another chance, get in a boat that’s torpedoed, join up with a breakaway bunch who board a beached Dutch vessel in the hope the tide will float it free, get used for ‘target practice’ by the Germans (rifle shots spang and punch neat holes in ship’s plate). They’re not stiff-upper lip heroes or even down to earth cheery squaddies, but a dead-straight comedy team – like the fellows carrying a wardrobe in the Roman Polanski short – whose absurd travails would be funny if it weren’t for the bodies piling up. Nolan takes a gamble on casting age-appropriate unknowns to carry the film, and Whitehead in particular manages a kind of ratty everyman presence that sticks in the mind.
Another Nolan trait is tricksy back-and-forth narratives – Batman Begins as as structurally daring as Memento when you break it down – and, though this sets out its parameters with captions, Dunkirk’s folded-in plot threads take quite a bit of following. It’s only when we meet a pre-shellshocked ‘shivering soldier’ (Cillian Murphy) after we’ve got to know him as a wreck who’s a danger to his rescuers that it really sinks in that not all the plot strands are happening simultaneously, and they do eventually merge. On the good ship Moonstone, weekend sailor Dawson (Mark Rylance, whose late-in-the-day film career continues to impress) and his cleancut son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), along with amiable kid George (Barry Keoghan), do their duty without making a fuss, but also without the Ealing Films quaintness that’s usually associated with the flotilla of pleasure boats who had to save the British armed forces’ bacon. In the air – and IMAX is great for dogfights, with planes spiralling above grey-blue seas – Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden talk through masks (yes, another Nolan holdover) and battle the Germans, while worried about low fuel and damage to the landing gear. If the chronology is skewed – Interstellar and The Prestige both play tricks with time itself as well as subjective time – it’s all bound together by a thrumm of a continuous score from Hans Zimmer. I’ve always found Zimmer hit or miss as a composer, but this is a very daring, effective, nerve-stretching score – before the press screening, the cinema played an apt selection of great hits from traditional war films (jaunty marches, mostly) which show just how radical Zimmer and Nolan’s approach to music here is.
And it’s an hour and forty six minutes long … a daring choice for an epic, and unusual in an era where serious subjects are thought to warrant extended running times. This is a film that has spectacle, huge crowds and big explosions, but also a human scale – even its significant moments are casually handled. Highly recommended and – of course – catch it in IMAX.