Commander Bolton: The tide's turning now.
Captain Winnant: How can you tell?
Commander Bolton: The bodies are coming back.
Dunkirk doesn’t obey any of the rules of modern commercial moviemaking. It doesn’t bother with backstory for its characters, it doesn’t linger on explosions or the human wreckage they cause, there is no “romantic interest” – there are barely even any women.
What it does instead is concentrate on the seemingly random. We follow a group of soldiers fleeing gunfire along French streets, picked off one by one until a single man is left. We see a mute survivor recycle the uniform from a corpse he happens upon, before burying it in the sand. We watch a shellshocked officer, rescued from wreckage by chance, cower in the belly of a boat. We see interminable lines of men standing on the piers, in the shallows, strafed by Stukas as they wait for deliverance. Some survive; others don’t. This is what was real.
Chrisptopher Nolan has been criticised for overwhelming his characters with artifice. I think that’s a misunderstanding of his method. Although it deals with history rather than speculative fantasy or magic realism, the film’s three nested timeframes work in essentially the same way as the layered dreamscapes of Inception, or the variable timeframes wrought by relativity in Interstellar. We see events from the space of a week on the beach, containing a single day on a rescue boat at sea and finally one desperate hour in the air. The procession is not linear, and events are sometimes repeated from different viewpoints. What seems at first to be random is in fact connected at every level.
There are no star turns: Mark Rylance’s sober boat captain is as understated as Tom Hardy’s pragmatic Spitfire pilot, his face half-hidden under his oxygen mask. Cillian Murphy’s nameless, context-less “shivering soldier” displays the raw emotion of a man who has seen too much and can take no more. Even pop star Harry Styles subverts his charisma to the demands of a not entirely sympathetic role. And relative newcomer Fionn Whitehead fulfills the role of viewpoint character - his name is "Tommy" - with a workmanlike credibility.
If there is one single voice to unify the action and draw all these experiences together, it’s not an actor's; it's that of Hans Zimmer, whose score moves from the urgently atonal to an evisceration of Elgar’s Nimrod theme from the Enigma Variations. It’s as much sound design as music, yet it’s an aural environment which stays in the head for many hours after the film has ended.