** SPOILER ALERT **
In the third act of Dunkirk, the propellor of Tom Hardy’s RAF plane suddenly stops. For an hour he has been so preoccupied with German dogfights that he lost track of his diminishing fuel. Will he plunge, flaming, into those sand dunes? The slo-mo suggests it.
But no. In this film’s own ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, Hardy manages to glide long enough to take down one more German fighter, gaze wistfully into the sunset, and then land safely and gaze wistfully at his burning plane. Hurrah! (Er, at least until some Nazis show up and take him off before the credits roll. Boo!)
I imagine Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking process was similar: he got so lost in bombarding us with climax after climax that, half an hour before the end, he realised his story was going nowhere (in the wrong sense of the term). Running on empty, he throws us the flotilla, Churchill, and a dead child whose name gets in the paper.
But by this point I just didn’t care about any of it. Certainly not about the characters, none of whom are sketched out beyond an outline (a wealth of talent – Murphy, Rylance, Branagh – is criminally underused; their pauses not so much pregnant as barren).
There are the elements of compelling stories here – the idea of a real war hero suffering from shell-shock accidentally killing a wet-behind-the-ears hero wannabe would make a great film by itself. As it is, it just feels – sadly, like everything else Nolan touches – calculated and structural. He uses elaborate structural diagrams when plotting his films; it’s just a shame that he seems to forget to rub out his workings.
As with the actors, so with the scenery. Watching Dunkirk was a physically and mentally draining experience and, as the film wore on, I started to think that it was less than the sum of its parts, almost by design. Immaculately realised set-pieces (Mark Kermode is right to call it “VR without goggles”) are brought before us then disappear in a flash. The soldiers have built a makeshift pier out of trucks: did you see it? Too late, here’s something else.
I appreciate the intention behind this breathlessness: to elevate suspense, which Nolan thinks “the most visual language of film.” Suspense, however, works through questions to which we need an answer. The only questions I kept asking were, “Wait, what was that? Which one is he again?”
Lastly, the sound effects (or, rather, THE SOUND EFFECTS). In interviews, Nolan describes using minimal dialogue to heighten our other senses. So why the need for such an ear-grating, ultimately detracting, score? If the aim was to immerse us in the soldiers’ subjective experience, this could have been achieved far more effectively through naturalistic sound effects. The single most effective use of sound is when the first dive bomber appears; its steadily rising screech is the sound of death closing in from afar. By contrast, Zimmer’s aggressively weird on-off TV static sound is twice used utterly redundantly to shovel suspense onto scenes that are already saturated with suspense. The result is overkill. Exhaustion.
On one level, Dunkirk is natural source material for Nolan’s signature style: a total sensory bombardment; a Pyrrhic victory (‘victory’ loosely defined as endurance); and a lot of meaningful staring.
So. Much. Staring.