Dunkirk, 1940. Allied soldiers, surrounded by the German army, have retreated to the beaches and desperately await evacuation.
On the ground, a young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) survives the slaughter of his unit and takes desperate measures to get on the next boat out. But his ordeal is only just beginning.
In the air, a daring pilot (Tom Hardy) risks his own life to take out the German bombers who are killing the men below.
And at sea, a civilian (Mark Rylance) in his own small boat sets out to do what little he can to bring the stranded army home.
It’s the sounds. The unnerving rhythmic ticking and discordant alarms of the soundtrack. The ear-splitting rattle of gunfire. The groan of a torpedo-struck ship.
Then again, it’s the images too. The tilting of horizons. Hands grasping blindly underwater. The bleak grey stretch of the sands. These are the things that stick with you after seeing Dunkirk, which is first and foremost a visceral experience. Here Christopher Nolan succeeds in doing what all storytellers set out to do – putting us in the protagonists’ shoes. We wince, gasp and hold our breath. We leave the cinema with a small measure of understanding of what the real soldiers on that beach must have gone through.
The film falters when it uses words. Moments of sentiment and contrivance add very little. This sobering picture is best when painted with minimal strokes.
- How would you describe your experience of the film? Which moments do you think will stay with you the longest? How does Dunkirk compare with Christopher Nolan’s other work?
- What did you think of the film’s performances? What was the effect of having the characters remain mostly unnamed, and their backgrounds unknown? Were you emotionally engaged with their stories?
- What impact did the film’s soundtrack have on you? How did the music help to build atmosphere and tension?
- What were some of Dunkirk‘s most striking visual moments? How does the camera place us in the middle of the action?
‘There are very few “God shots.” Everything is about trying to have the camera there on the beach with the soldiers…Everything is shot from the point of view of the characters.’ – Christopher Nolan
- Would you describe any of the characters in Dunkirk as heroic, and what characterises their heroism? On the flipside, where do we see men making morally questionable choices to ensure their own survival? How might you have behaved, in their shoes?
- To what extent does the film portray its characters as helpless – subject to the randomness of fate? To what extent do they seem to have choices which let them take control of their destiny? Which of these do you think is truer to life, especially during wartime?
- Does Dunkirk make any implied judgments about the decision-makers who withheld ships and planes from the Dunkirk rescue effort to be used in future battles? Do you think the film takes a stance on the morality of war in general?
- What does ‘home’ mean for the film’s characters, and would you call Dunkirk a patriotic film? What might the story of the Dunkirk evacuation mean to people in Britain – and around the world – today?
- What does the film have to say about ‘communal responsibility and communal heroism’? Do you agree that the idea of community is unfashionable in today’s society? What might it take to build real communities again?
‘We live in an era where the virtue of individuality is very much overstated. The idea of communal responsibility and communal heroism and what can be achieved through community is unfashionable. Dunkirk is a very emotional story for me because it represents what’s being lost.’ – Christopher Nolan