Something curious happens to time in Christopher Nolan’s movies. On screen, it twists and dances and coils enticingly; off screen, it vanishes. His magnificent new film, “Dunkirk,” seems to be over in a flash — you disappear inside of it and it changes you, as all great movies do.
Based on a remarkable story from World War II, “Dunkirk” unfolds on land, on the sea and in the air. The land is a vast beach in Dunkirk, France, in May 1940, where hundreds of thousands of British soldiers are trapped — the English Channel on one side, enemy forces on the other.
The sea is that choppy, green-gray Channel, where a small wooden yacht named Moonstone, manned by a middle-aged father (Mark Rylance) and his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney), is one of hundreds of nonmilitary vessels summoned by the British government in a vast, unprecedented evacuation mission. And the air is above the Channel, where an RAF Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) battles the Luftwaffe planes — despite a shot-out gas gauge.
These three stories, taking place in their own time (the evacuation on the beach takes days; the flight, a mere hour) yet interwoven, each feel like an entire world; you watch realizing that you’re not breathing.
Two young soldiers on the beach, desperate to get onto a hospital boat, grab a stretcher and race through the endless crowds waiting on the mole (a long wooden pier); we don’t know their names or their stories, but we race with them. A shellshocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) stranded at sea, picked up by the father and son, panics upon realizing that they are headed back into war — “I’m not going back,” he says, his eyes mirrors of horror, and you see the hell of combat that “Dunkirk” doesn’t show us.
And, in one quiet nod of approval between the father and son — and in Rylance’s beautifully subtle portrayal of quiet, determined decency — you see the essence of this story: These young men fought, and these scores of regular Brits climbed into boats to go retrieve them, because it was, simply, the right thing to do.
“Dunkirk” succeeds spectacularly both emotionally and visually. (See it in 70mm IMAX if you possibly can; I did, and am still reeling. “Dunkirk” is screening in a variety of formats.) That chilly sea looks endless from the seat of that Spitfire; the lines of men on the beach appear impossibly long; that boat seems tiny amid the waves. Remarkable action sequences unfurl, particularly a breathtaking late scene in which flames from a sinking ship engulf the sea.
But it’s the quiet moments that linger with you after this film, and the aching sense of home — both as something we yearn for, and something that takes care of us — that pervades it. “Dunkirk” is not a story of triumph, but one of living to fight another day, with a little help from our friends. “All we did was survive,” says a quiet soldier, near the end. For now, he’s told, “that’s enough.”
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Running time: 106 minutes
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