Reflections on “Dunkirk” (2017)

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan,

starring Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy

Watching “Dunkirk” was something of a visceral experience. It felt like more of a participation than a viewing, and I think that was probably Christopher Nolan’s key intention and purpose when planning his film – he wanted his audience to share the experience he is presenting.

Nolan engages the senses of the audience. The movement of the camera and positioning of shots allow us to be involved in the action and to be impressed by sweeping vistas and the sheer scale of the task of evacuation of so many men. Yet he is equally adept at handling intense, confined scenes which allow us to share the immediate experiences of all concerned in the evacuation process. Scenes are built reflecting the fear, hope, safety, loss, destruction, devastation, insecurity, defeat and celebration (survival is the enemy’s failure) of the evacuees and those trying to ensure their evacuation.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard better use of sound than in this film. It wasn’t just loud, it was sharp, intense, encompassing and heightened the sensations and reactions of the audience so they could virtually feel the sheer power and deadly force of each bullet.

The music (courtesy of Hans Zimmer) became part of the sound experience and enhanced not only the action and the drama, but the very sensations felt by the audience. At one point the steady increase of sound/music and its intensity reflected not just the physical approach of fighter planes and bombers, but an ever more concentrated sense of expectation and imminent danger.

While I understand Nolan’s desire and intentions in showing the same events from different perspectives, emphasising the existential nature of actions and their impact on others (often without realisation), their nonlinear presentation within the ongoing timeline caused some confusion.

Throwing us in at the deep end (having the audience join the action without preamble or explanation) means no meaningful background or exposé of situation or character, so we have no historical overview or perspective (we’re really no further forward in terms of our historical knowledge and understanding by the end of the film), and we have no real opportunity to build emotional ties to any of the characters (beyond sympathy and understanding for their immediate circumstances).

Indeed, this amounts to a certain emotional detachment for virtually all the characters in the film because although we share their awful experiences, there is no construct in the script to allow us to know or care about the characters beyond admiration for their determination and courage, and sympathy for their situation.

The one exception is the young lad on Mark Rylance’s boat who is hurt by the shipwrecked Cillian Murphy. This story within a story seems tagged on and requires greater development – as it is, it just rather tragically fizzles out. These are the only “artificial” scenes in which an emotional situation and response are created and imposed – all other scenes are “natural” and arise from the drama and genuine possibilities of real events which could have applied to any of the evacuees.

So, a worthwhile venture whose strengths in involvement in action and sharing experience bring about a few weaknesses in engagement of emotion and historical context.

My thanks for taking the time to read this page.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at .