There’s a climactic scene in Dunkirk (Warner Bros, 2017) where some of the exhausted British soldiers are pulling in to station on a train. Suddenly one of them worries: will they be reviled as cowards? The retreat from Dunkirk feels like a massive failure. They fear they have let their country down. There are knocks on the window. The fists of an angry mob? No, a grateful crowd of cheering men and women, handing bottles of beers to the soldiers. They are welcomed as heroes.
There’s emotional content here, and a sense of relief, for sure. But whatever feeling Nolan is trying to wring from this scene, I don’t really feel he’s done much to earn it. For the length of the preceding film, we’ve seen and heard virtually nothing of the English homeland; if any of the characters had families, we weren’t told about it (heck, none of them are even given names); and the abstract ideas of heroism or cowardice, which could have made a nice structural opposition for the film’s framework, have never even been alluded to. Why should we care if they are heroes or cowards? What is at stake?
It would have been easy enough to set up an opening scene or two, to give a little context to the lives of the soldiers; establish a home, a family, a loved one. Once planted, these dramatic elements could have been revisited in the final scenes, and given far more resonance, far more emotional truth, than the perfunctory scene described above. Further, the director could have begun early on with a clue that he intended to address a real human conflict (are we cowards, or are we heroes?), and give us some resolution at the end.
But there! That’s just me being stuffy and old-fashioned, hoping for conventional structure, narrative closure, emotional honesty in a film. Nolan has largely dispensed with all of these conventional elements in Dunkirk (and indeed his other movies, where he frequently plays with temporal structure), because he clearly regards them as corny, trite, clichéd. How can he make a truly modern war movie instead? By studiously avoiding the narrative traps, as he would see them, that get in the way of the statement he wishes to make. No tedious set-ups for him; we’re plunged into the action immediately. Instead of resolution, Nolan gives us perpetual unresolved tensions.
There’s a lot to be said for his confrontational, “you-are-there” styled approach to his take on the Dunkirk story. But in following his chosen path, I feel he sacrifices the context that might give the struggle some meaning that the viewer can identify with. And he doesn’t leave himself time to explore the themes that his station scene is trying to capitalise on; which is why the scene is such an empty payoff. This is what I’m trying to get at when I say it’s “unearned” emotion.
Guest blog post by Ed Pinsent