Time is of the essence in Dunkirk; and time is the essence of Dunkirk. The enemy, we are told by the opening titles, has chased the British and French armies to the beaches. Then Hans Zimmer’s score starts up, beginning with the tick-tocking of the clock, and it becomes clear that the enemy is time as much as it is the Third Reich.
The ticking – relentless, inexorable – pervades Dunkirk. Time waits for no man: the soldiers, officers, and civilian sailors can only feel themselves swept along in its unthinking march. Christopher Nolan (who greatly enjoys playing with time: Memento’s backwards narrative; Batman Begins’ staggered flashbacks; Inception’s time dilation) has no such problem. He can play with time however he likes. His screenplay is split between three perspectives: land, sea, and air. One begins a week from the evacuation of Dunkirk, the next a day, and the third an hour. They are three separate countdowns, interwoven, that converge and create the third act.
There are no generals in Dunkirk, no war rooms or strategy meetings. Nolan focuses entirely on the men on the ground (or on the water, or in the sky). Dunkirk is about desperation as much as it is about time. The civilian mariners are desperate to reach their troops, the Spitfire pilots are desperate to fend off the circling Luftwaffe, and the soldiers on the beach are desperate to just survive. Zimmer’s score, when it isn’t ticking away, is made up of staccato strings that mimic the implacable passage of time on a grand, anxious scale; or else it sinks into a despair-filled atonal drone, as these characters wonder if they have run out of time, if they ever had the time to begin with.
Zimmer’s score doesn’t stop. From the moment Dunkirk begins to when the end credits roll (except for a single and fitting exception) it is always there, ticking or droning or thumping. Time waits for no man, after all; there was no respite on the beaches, and there is no respite here. Dunkirk is an unrelenting, unceasing, exhausting film. When I first saw The Dark Knight, I remarked to a friend that it never seemed to let up. With Dunkirk, Nolan has made a feature film out of that feeling, the feeling of not being able to catch your mental breath, of being dragged along in a film’s wake, willing or no.
The performances are real and terrific, from the unknowns playing soldiers on the beach to the big names like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Brannagh and Tom Hardy. But this is not a character film. It is barely even a narrative film. Dunkirk is an experience. It is 106 minutes of desperation, desolation, and despair, with only fleeting moments of triumph or hope. In that sense – and with its expertly stratified timescales – Dunkirk reveals itself to be Nolan’s most experimental film. Perhaps even his best.