Critically acclaimed director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a war film yet one in which the enemy appears scarcely.

It is a technically awe-inspiring, thematically complex and narratively inventive movie that revolves around the story of evacuation of the British expeditionary force from Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June, 1940. When it was announced that Nolan intended to make a film about the Dunkirk evacuation, it was anticipated to be a classic war film where there would be the build up and laying out of content, the unfurling of back stories, the explanation of geography. However, Nolan’s war epic is bare of such trappings.

There are no loved ones worrying back home, no generals making plans around tables and not even Winston Churchill is there, only the men, the beach and the sky. Apart from a few Luftwaffe planes, there aren’t even any Nazis, merely the knowledge that their artillery lies over the hills and the u-boats prowl beneath the waves is there. There is no ‘fighting’ but simply survival and not ‘dying’.

The film opens with about four lakh troops stranded at Dunkirk, with the situation being that the enemy can kill them at will by air. They can see the safety of the Dover cliffs but they have no way to reach out to them. The narrative follows three major threads covering different periods of time: from the men on the beach desperate to find their way to safety: from the air where the pilots engage in dogfights and the mass of civilians who sail to Dunkirk to help evacuate the soldiers.

Over the course of a week, a young British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the beach to wait there with the masses for a rescue that may or may not arrive. A British civilian (Mark Rylance) and two teenagers pilot his small wooden yacht across the channel to save whomever they can. Then an RAF spitfires pilot (Tom Hardy) tussles with the Luftwaffe planes above to protect the men below.

If one wants to write about the plot, it would be improper. These are shards of story, at once intimate and clinical. There are moments of harrowing intensity.

There is not much time devoted to individual characters and motivations. There is only a single motivation and that is to survive as a whole. Nolan’s acting prowess has made every shot seem real and most importantly his decision to completely abstain from CGI and opting for practical effects instead makes every gunshot, dogfight and explosion feel impeccably genuine.

This is further accentuated by an unnerving musical score by Hans Zimmer that adds to the nonstop tension. All these elements combine to make Dunkirk a visceral experience. The battle of Dunkirk has always been one of the most remarkable martial lores. At the end of the film, when one of the returning men is congratulated, he says, “all we did is survive”.

The survival of the British expeditionary force from such a terrible occasion needed a tribute and it has got one in the form of Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary cinematic spectacle.

(Coordinator, Class XI, Hindu School)