Dunkirk score

The sheer amount of space in Dunkirk is overwhelming. There are three vast swaths of it: air, land, and sea, rendered in stark whites and blacks, and blues in-between. Men and boats alike come across as matchstick figures, just as dominated by negative space as any J.M.W. Turner painting. Warmer colors come in the form of the soldiers and civilians whose fight to stay alive forms the backbone of the film’s narrative, and as the tick-tick-tick of Hans Zimmer’s score kicks in and the three main storylines intercut, it becomes apparent that we’re not just looking at empty space; we’re seeing triple forces, slowly threatening to crush the men stranded at Dunkirk.

The pleasure in Christopher Nolan’s latest film is equal parts in the grace of the visuals (cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema nearly walks away with the whole film) and in its construction. The narrative of Dunkirk is relatively straightforward, but the way it’s put together recalls the simple joy of watching someone construct a puzzle box. The film focuses on a week, a day, and an hour during the Second World War, as over 300,000 Allied soldiers are evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk, France, where they were essentially sitting ducks for the German forces. The timeframes follow the soldiers stranded on the beach, the civilians boats called into service to aid the evacuation, and the pilots serving as essentially the only defense against the German planes, respectively. As the film progresses, it’s not only space that closes in on the characters, but time as well. The storylines push in, speeding up on their parallel tracks, as does the awareness that the longer these men are out in the open, the more likely they are to die.

The nesting-doll gambit isn’t one that manages to completely stick the landing as the threads come together in a fashion that’s a little frayed, but it’s done with such commitment that it’s impossible to imagine the story being told in any other way. It helps that the movie is sparse despite being so grand in scale; the dialogue is minimal and arguably inessential, and none of the action is without purpose. This sparseness can read as cold — when men die, they die, and in war, they die en masse — but Nolan’s films have never been without a heart. Two soldiers bond despite hardly speaking, to the point that one (Fionn Whitehead, as the main soldier we follow) stares down the barrels of his fellows’ guns to protect him; another sacrifices his own chance at getting home in order to make a last attempt at saving evacuating soldiers from drowning. They’re the kinds of connections that can seem impossible to hang onto in the face of something so bleak and dizzying as war, but it is ultimately all that gets these soldiers through. To that end, this fight isn’t so removed as we might think it is.

The near-vertigo triggered by the scenes of flight are matched best by the impact of the respective stories’ emotional beats coming in to land. The larger context of the war is almost never addressed — the soldiers all already know why they’re there, the question is how they’ll get out. In accordance, it’s the smaller struggles that are afforded more of the precious little dialogue the movie has, in particular the journey of Dawson (Mark Rylance), one of the civilians sailing to Dunkirk to help evacuate the men. He sails with his son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and their young neighbor (Barry Keoghan), both of them barely younger than the soldiers they mean to save. It’s arguably the storyline with the least action in it — again, the flight sequences are thrilling and critical on a larger scale in a way that the others aren’t (featuring Tom Hardy in yet another mostly masked but still utterly striking performance), and the threat of attack is more readily apparent (and occasionally executed) following the soldiers on the beach — but it’s the least anonymous thread of the three. These characters, still in civilian garb, can’t be lost to the eye in the same way that the identically dressed soldiers can, affording their danger an intimacy that draws the stakes up even higher.

On the other side of intimacy, chaos begins to dominate the film as the storylines converge. The sight of a single man drowning intercuts with an entire ship of soldiers filling with water in one of the movie’s rare forays into inducing claustrophobia, and it starts to become easy to lose track of time and of space, both of which are running out. The film’s relentlessness counts in its favor given how relatively bloodless it is for being set in the middle of a war. Nolan is particularly adept at expressing damage through little gestures — a single scream heard from off-screen, or six men in frame suddenly reduced to one. It helps to emphasize that the events at Dunkirk were not quite a victory — though things ended as well as they could, it was still an evacuation following a military humiliation. Similarly, for as warm-hearted as the film ultimately is, it staunchly refuses to make things out as easier as they were. The labels of hero and coward aren’t given out easily, nor can they really be applied. The war is a huge affair, the interpersonal deeds are not. As with every other dichotomy in Dunkirk, the film balances somewhere in the middle.

Every element of Nolan’s prior films has been honed to near-perfection here. The visuals, the structure, the use of sound and music, and the simple presence of a beating heart — all come together in a whole that is truly breathtaking. Despite its grounded story, Dunkirk feels more transcendent than even Interstellar, jumping through time to go from the past to the present, reminding us of the importance of empathy and perspective in the middle of loss.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Karen Han is a writer based in New York, via the midwest. She writes about film, TV, and Tintin, among other things.