Quick Review: Dunkirk and Christopher Nolan

Contains spoilers

I’ve recently watched Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s epic version of the Allied evacuation of 1940. In this quick review, I’ll explore how Dunkirk develops some distinctive interests and aesthetics from Nolan’s previous films. These thoughts (raw reflections on a single viewing)[i] also react to the debate over how seriously to take a director whose work is intellectually ambitious, but delivered primarily via Hollywood blockbusters.

Dunkirk is spectacular, visceral, and – despite many sweeping aerial shots – intensely claustrophobic: we join people being trapped, shot, burned and drowned on their own sightlines; with just-rescued troops having tea and jam, we are submerged instantly, cups in hand, when their ship is torpedoed minutes towards home.

Dunkirk establishes moral and historical nuance – there’s genuine heroism here, but framed by intrusions of malevolence and a desperately messy, strategically grim, context. Dunkirk – subjectively but remarkably – seems to me to successfully wipe the audience’s retrospective knowledge of Allied victory, leaving the evacuation overshadowed by an expected German invasion of Britain that feels entirely likely. The film opens on a storm of German propaganda leaflets blowing through Dunkirk’s streets, carrying the (accurate) message ‘we surround you’. Any glib triumphalism is absent; the effect of this is not to relativise anything – rather, it establishes a sounder commitment to historical realism and moral seriousness.

This commitment frames Nolan’s transference of some longstanding interests to the history addressed by the film. These interests encompass relationships between modern technologies, men veering between creativity and violence, and the actions of the human in the face of mass production directed towards conquest. The Prestige (2006), with its mirrors between magic and modernity, its deadly masculine rivalry, and final combination of automated reproduction and murder in a single technology, is perhaps his tightest dramatisation of these interests, but they develop throughout his oeuvre, including his last pre-Dunkirk work, Interstellar (2014).

The Death of a Child

As in Interstellar, The Prestige, Inception (2010), Insomnia (2002), a threat to the safety of a child acts as a fulcrum for events in Dunkirk. Here, the threat materialises towards George (Barry Keoghan), the teenage boathand who impulsively joins Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) to participate in the evacuation. George is killed after they collect a stranded, traumatised sailor (Cillian Murphy), who attacks Dawson on learning that they are heading to France, not England, with George taking a head wound during the confrontation. This death of a child, peripheral to the main event, symbolises the broader violence at work and what is at stake in it (this is a trope with a long tradition). George’s death seems cruelly random, deprived even of the grandiosity of meaning that could come from sparking further violence: after George’s death is discovered, Dawson’s son’s (Tom Glynn-Carney) reaction is relatively controlled, even having the moral strength to conceal the death from the traumatised sailor who caused it.

This child’s death evokes the relationship between the mass slaughter of modern warfare and the banal, local dynamics of fear and the desire for security. The sailor’s violence towards Dawson – and accidentally towards George – arises from his horror at their absurdly everyday vessel setting off into the throes of modern warfare. George is killed, though, not by the enemy, but because of the sailor’s fear and intense drive to return to the security of ‘home’.

Little Ships, Boarded Shops

George’s death is one of several ironic juxtapositions and transformations from the everyday world to the military situation, which aren’t ever either linear or secure. As Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) says, ‘You can practically see it from here […] home’. Dunkirk is so near the everyday world, yet so far, an irony emphasised in the opening on the town’s eerily empty but intact houses. The camera dwells on the boarded-over façades of beachside hotels and cafes; the boards are stamped with the names and branding of the businesses behind, as though they are merely closed for renovation. Nolan makes the everyday world uncannily present and absent in the battle, the transformation of the former for the latter tantalisingly almost reversible, as it is in the little ships themselves.

Elements and Objects

Similarly, there’s both a banality and an epic scale in fighting for control of land, sea and air – evident early when Tommy, escaping gunfire, squats to defecate on the beach.

The conquest of territory is associated with aesthetic ideas originating in the local and banal – rather as German propaganda projects a vision of such conquest, in the opening, through the banal form of the mass-produced leaflet. Nolan’s sense of the relationships between quasi-ecological aesthetics of territory and conquest, modern technologies, and the everyday, local and personal realm, resonates with some recent strands in historical research, such as Timothy Snyder’s recent seminal Holocaust study, Black Earth (2015).

Mass production appears as central to the modern forms of power involved in the battle – most obviously in men and matériel, where scale of production is critical. The soldiers look almost mass-produced themselves: near-identical figures, queuing in vast numbers, then diving in unified ripples under air attack. Even the young soldiers picked out by the plot look similar and their individuation is noticeably minimal; Tommy is named for the generic slang term for a British private.

A later shot shows discarded helmets on the beach: an elegiac trace of those whose presence is now registered only in these identical objects, and an echo of The Prestige’s opening panning shot over a field of discarded hats, which uncannily both suggest and deny a human presence, and which are similarly products of technology turned to purposes of violence. Yet mass production, though evidently a powerful force in modern war, does not enable absolute domination in Dunkirk.

Adaptation and Creativity

Against the imposition of a single vision on the world through overwhelming force, adaptation emerges as a crucial resource of resistance, drawing upon the creativity involved in technological modernity (as expressed, for example, in the Spitfire), but avoiding a political/aesthetic logic of mass repetition and reproduction, including the Nazi emphasis on unity and repetition in reproduction (both biological and technological). Important adaptations in the film include, most obviously, the deployment of the Little Ships themselves; but also, the attempted use of a beached fishing vessel by a group of soldiers, and the pilot Farrier’s (Tom Hardy) decision to defend the beach at the cost of exhausting fuel and being captured.

Often, the ironic effects of the physical elements (which have an immense visual presence in this movie) demand such adaptations: The sea provides both a ready route home and a perilous barrier. The Spitfire brilliantly masters the air, but it depends on a finite supply of oil (which its gauge may not be measuring correctly). This fuel becomes an instrument of death when it spills on the sea, leaving soldiers in a gruesome elemental trap of fire above, water below. The perfect trope for ironic human relations to unforgiving elements is the beached ship where Alex’s group seek a means of escape; it is shot-up and leaking, but starts to float as the tide comes in; it is poised on the border between facilitating rescue, or death. To me, this ship is a rather Conradian ironic object, simultaneously floating and sinking like the Patna in Conrad’s Lord Jim, which has an even more direct echo in the drifting upturned hull from which Dawson rescues the sailor.

All these elemental ironies (emphasised by Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and Nolan’s minimal romantic investment in individual characters)[ii] suggest a material world ultimately unhelpful to the psycho-aesthetic vision of mass repetition and reproduction as the straightforward route to domination. Although the elemental world here feels morally blind, the ironies generated by this blindness favour those with the capacity to adapt. Those who have this capacity echo previous Nolan protagonists who have been forced to adapt (like Bruce Wayne, in the Dark Knight trilogy, and Cooper in Interstellar), or who have failed to do so, at terrible human cost; in some cases, as with the protagonists of The Prestige, the line between successful and terrible adaptation remains ambivalent. Notably, these adaptations are typically material and even technological, not just moral or aesthetic.

This could sound like a celebration of male achievement, even of a Darwinian ethic, underlining the case that Nolan is conservative on gender. Yet this would misread, I think, the way adaptation functions as an ethic in Nolan’s work in general, and in Dunkirk in particular, insofar as an adaptation is always a humiliation, and one bound up in a sense of loss (as in the ‘success’ of the mission at the conclusion of Interstellar, and the ambiguity (un)finishing Inception). It would also overlook Nolan’s commitment to the costs of his protagonists’ creativity – note the shocking moment in The Prestige when Cutter (Michael Caine) reveals that a moving comment he made earlier about a peaceful experience of death was nothing more than an easy lie.

The humiliating quality in adaptation emerges with visual power in Dunkirk – in, for example, the shots of the huddled group of young soldiers approaching the beached fishing vessel, with them dwarfed by the ship, and the ship dwarfed by the sea. Here the ironies created by the physical elements, and turned into catastrophe by banal fantasies of their conquest, make the demand for adaptation material. Meeting it is an act of potential heroism (though in this case it’s derailed by German gunfire and by Alex’s paranoid aggression towards a French boy who has joined them), but a heroism without grandiosity.

Turning to real history seems to have made Nolan’s canvass broader, both in Dunkirk’s massive visual scope, but also in its refusal of overwhelming investment in any single character. The result is an elegiac yet provocative reimaging of the psychological and technological dynamics at the heart of modern capacities for both violence and creativity.

The visuals through which Nolan expresses this are based on ironic juxtapositions of contrasting scales and messy elemental refusals to allow human embodiment of territory or its conquest. Whereas in other hands ironic differences of scale can create a kind of black comedy where everything is universally and essentially grotesque, here the human, technological and natural elements refuse to condense into a single version of reality. The product of this refusal is an aesthetic of irony that is also an ethic of love, rooted as it is in a refusal to view the other in terms of identification alone, rather than the terms of the ‘real world’ that a commitment to history invokes.

[i] As this review is based on memory of that single viewing, please let me know if you spot any factual error here.

[ii] Interestingly, this is a clear break with several of Nolan’s previous films, which do tend to have a dominant protagonist.


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