Historical films, having as they do bearing in fact, can sometimes be an anchor on creativity. Trying to balance historical accuracy with cinematic storytelling and entertainment can sometimes end badly for all concerned.
Christopher Nolan, who directs ‘Dunkirk’, is known for his creativity and unique story-telling style which may in theory not lend itself to faithful historical record. However, Nolan’s particular strengths actually partner perfectly with a film of Dunkirk’s nature. Sweeping narratives, visceral detail and different perspectives are well matched to the story of the evacuation of British and French forces from the beachhead at Dunkirk in 1940 and Nolan’s achievement in this film is to marry his unique style with this unique event.
At Dunkirk, the largest constituent part of the British army, having gone over to France to nip the Nazi Blitzkrieg in the bud, was defeated and had retreated to this northern corner of France. Capitulation in France marooned around 400,000 well-intentioned British soldiers without any potent strategy to defend or attack the surrounding forces of Nazi Germany. The largest part of the army of the world’s largest Empire was now stranded and awaited the deliverance of the enemy’s hardware. It was a catastrophe.
This barren situation is captured at all times throughout Nolan’s film. The idea of waiting for this end is depicted with British style as these hundreds of thousands of soldiers are seen not only waiting for the end but queuing for the end. The repeated shots of endless lines of young men with soaking jet black mop tops queuing for a boat, or queuing for food, or queuing to get into the next queue brings a surreal quality to the reality that this surely is what it would have been like. It was a catastrophe but as long as they didn’t let on there was still a chance.
The youthfulness of Dunkirk is a clear and present throughout. Pop and Reality TV star Harry Styles plays a lad who doesn’t bat an eyelid at going full Lord of the Flies when among a group of soldiers hiding in a sinking a ship needing to a volunteer to jump out. I cannot imagine this unique stress of war however Styles is cast as an unsympathetic and domineering alpha male – a role for which he must have undergone lengthy training as an actor.
Seriously though, his acting may be criticised but the decision to cast Harry Styles is actually very appropriate. For better or worse he is the teenage heartthrob of our generation. He is defined by his youthfulness. At the age of 23, we are both surprised he still looks so baby faced but equally surprised he might not actually be a bit older because he’s been in our cultural consciousness for so long.
When you think Harry Styles you think a young kid who should be in school – as it was for many of the stricken soldiers at Dunkirk. Despite what computer games tell us, war is rarely fought by rugged veterans who have seen it all before, but by children, teenagers and men and women in their twenties. Many of those at Dunkirk would have been no older than Styles’ age and so his casting is a master stroke in reminding us about how the horror of war is first met on the young.
Common complaints that we are desensitised to violence, blood and gore by cinema, television or whatever we dare to click on the internet are not found here. Dunkirk was a battlefield where people died but the film is maybe a bit too clean. This threatens to remind us we are watching a film as opposed to drawing us into the situation. But Nolan balances the lack of obvious Vietnam-style horror and chaos with the horrors of the water, the horrors of being trapped and the horror of having your fate in the hands of others.
There are several leading characters in the film but there is nobody around which the entire story revolves. Not even Kenneth Branagh’s Commander who stands on the pier attempting to direct the evacuation is master of his own fate. All rely on the other interlinking perspectives of the story. The perspective of Mark Rylance’s retired veteran’s pleasure boat crossing the channel to a war zone is fuelled by the duty to do his bit. As is Tom Hardy’s endless dogfights in the air knowing he might lack the fuel to get himself home.
At times a controversial word, the film in several moments articulates what ‘duty’ means. Acts done in the name of duty at Dunkirk are actually very similar to acts of empathy, for what is duty if not having obligations to others we have not met and acting right by them. That is the moral of this film, that without duty and empathy and cooperation there is only catastrophe.