There is a last surprising shot at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Sitting on the train in England, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) has just read Churchill’s speech ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ from the newspaper, while across the channel we have just seen the spectacular image of Farrier (Tom Hardy) torching his Spitfire on the Dunkirk beach. Instead of fading to black, as most movies would at this point, the camera returns to the face of Tommy for a few short seconds. Christopher Nolan does not let the audience walk away with two iconic concluding scenes in their mind, but allows the face of his everyman foot-soldier to register doubt and disquiet, so briefly you could almost ignore it; but not quite.
Unlike Nolan’s previous film, Interstellar, whose excellence was hamstrung by a ponderous voiceover repetition of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight’, an arse-aching running time and a well-worn ‘twist’ ending (the alien presence was human all along), Dunkirk is a svelte, streamlined masterpiece of action, editing, music, emotion and acting. Never sentimental where it shouldn’t be, rich with pathos where it should, Nolan’s direction never puts a foot wrong.
Four main strands are interwoven. Tommy, a private who loses his entire company in the opening minutes, struggles to survive and to find a place on board a vessel out of Dunkirk. Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) outsmarts the Navy’s attempts to requisition his small pleasure boat by taking his son and friend over to Dunkirk himself, to rescue as many men as they can. In the air, Farrier and his fellow pilots face off against the Luftwaffe, who are picking off the stranded men and ships below. And Commander Bolton oversees the hasty, under-resourced evacuation from the breakwater – or ‘mole’ – with lugubrious stoicism.
I was lucky enough to see Dunkirk in a 35mm celluloid print, which was nothing short of sublime. The lambent qualities of film showed the film’s superlative lighting, practical effects and location filming as only film can. I was thrown back into the past repeatedly, remembering so many youthful hours spent in cinemas, watching movies of all genres. But Hans Zimmer’s stylized contemporary-sounding score never lulls you into thinking you are watching a rose-tinted nostalgia flick. Anxiety inducing, nerve-shredding, absent where events speak for themselves, and uplifting toward the end without being mawkish, I have to say this is one of the finest scores I’ve heard in recent years.
Returning to that final shot of Tommy’s face on the train: this extra moment unsettles the movie at its conclusion, opening things up again, disallowing the narrative a neatly sewn-up end, even though the strands of story have been elegantly resolved. This face of doubt is one that looks to the future with a sense foreboding and unavoidable fear. As it looks out at its 2017 audience, having endured through one of Britain’s darkest episodes, in which it did not know what the future held and how its relationship with Europe would be altered, repaired or resolved, it is clear that Christopher Nolan invites us to recognise Tommy’s expression as our own.