THE CINEMATIC PORTRAYAL of the 1940 French and British evacuation from Dunkirk was, unsurprisingly perhaps, the most highly anticipated film of the summer. It was the latest offering from Christopher Nolan, arguably the best filmmaker of his generation, and the director’s first “war” film (though it has little in common with Saving Private RyanThe Great Escape or any other film that might come under that description).

For Dunkirk, Nolan reunited himself with a cast and crew comprising those who have, in the past, proved to be part of a winning formula: Tom Hardy (InceptionThe Dark Knight Rises), Cillian Murphy (Batman BeginsInception) and Michael Caine (Batman BeginsInceptionInterstellarThe Prestige); Nolan’s wife and producer, Emma Thomas, and the inimitable, ubiquitous composer Hans Zimmer. But in this case it is not the cast and crew so much as Nolan’s own writing (his brother Jonathan has written or co-written many of his screenplays in the past), his direction and his unique artistic vision that is behind a film that I have no doubt will be considered a classic of modern cinema.

It was the cosmic setting and grand themes of time and the survival of humanity in Nolan’s near-future sci-fi epic, Interstellar, that were at the core of the film, while the characters were secondary to the point of expendability. Very few people who sat through the film will have left the cinema without the image of NASA pilot Joseph “Coop” Cooper driving away from his children seared into their retinas and their memories. But in Dunkirk, it’s the reverse. In other words it is the survival of the individual, in pursuit from a faceless and terrifying and quasi-supernatural enemy force that lies at the centre of the story and is lifted up.

Three intertwining narratives, taking place on The Mole, in the sea, and in the air, and taking place over the course of a week, a day and an hour respectively, run together. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a blank canvas of a young private in the British Expeditionary Force, flees the advancing German army to the beach at Dunkirk where, along with the seemingly mute Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), he takes up an abandoned stretcher bearing a dying man so he can slip past the soldiers queuing along The Mole and be evacuated with the wounded hundreds.

The retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, which was famously supported by some seven hundred so-called Little Ships with civilians and naval officers at their helms, is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a war film. 

Back in England, in Weymouth, so close to the killing fields of France and yet safely out of reach, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) head to Dunkirk on the Moonstone to help with the evacuation rather than allow a navy crew to commandeer their boat. Their teenage hand, George (Barry Keoghan), impulsively decides to join them and tells Peter that he hopes to impress his father by doing something to make up for his poor performance at school. As the three set sail across the choppy waters of the English Channel, three RAF Spitfires flying overhead pass them by. Aboard the Spitfires are the stoic Farrier (Hardy) and the equally phlegmatic Collins (Jack Lowden) as well as their Squadron Leader, “Fortis Leader”; they have been charged with providing air support to those leading the evacuation operation at Dunkirk, which is the target of regular aerial bombardment by Junkers dive-bombers, whose deafening screams are one of the film’s most memorable and haunting motifs. (The main gear legs of the Junkers Ju 87 were mounted with “Jericho Trumpets” specifically to inspire fear in those below).

The retreat from Dunkirk over a week in 1940, which was famously supported by some seven hundred so-called Little Ships with civilians and naval officers at their helms, is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a war film. Operation Dynamo, as it was called, was a narrowly avoided catastrophe (Churchill himself called it a “colossal military disaster”) remembered with fondness and pride only by we British, who still, occasionally, find a reason to celebrate the “Dunkirk spirit” exemplified in the deployment of the fragile little boats that helped to save four hundred thousand young Britons. It’s an extraordinarily British story for the twin reasons that no description of British culture could exclude a feeling of affection for the underdog and a belief in ordinary human decency. What better example is there, you might ask, of both?

The efforts of civilians back in Blighty form only a small segment of this remarkable film, which is dominated by the attempts of our central character (but never much of a hero), Tommy, to survive the advancing Germans, the Stuka bombings, the unforgiving sea, and the countless other forces of death that inhabit the beaches and waters of Dunkirk.

But the efforts of civilians back in Blighty make up only a sliver of this remarkable film, which is instead dominated by the attempts of our central character (but never much of a hero), Tommy, to survive the advancing German forces, the dive-bombings, the unforgiving sea, and the other forces of death that stalk the beaches and wade in the waters of Dunkirk. The film is frighteningly intense, thanks in a large part to the unending Shepard tone and sound of a ticking clock (taken from Nolan’s own pocket watch, apparently) that forms the basis of Zimmer’s anxious soundtrack. There’s no manipulation of the viewer’s emotions by Nolan––which isn’t to say the film isn’t moving at times––but, simply, a story of survival told against a backdrop of chaos and horror that’s immersive in a way that can only be achieved by a master filmmaker.

And Dunkirk is filmed masterfully: Nolan tells his story through a cold, grey-blue lens that seems to call to mind a distinct sense of death and decay. The scenes look like impressionist paintings, and elicit an acute terror that feels far more real than that found in most card-carrying films of the horror genre. Characters come and go with scant characterisation while Commander Bolton (Sir Kenneth Branagh), acting like a Chorus of Greek tragedy, supervises the evacuation. Alex (Harry Styles) is a fellow evacuee whom encounters Tommy part-way into the film, and an unnamed pale and gaunt figure (Cillian Murphy) is a shell-shocked soldier found by Mr. Dawson shuddering on a capsized hull. The performances, almost without exception, are excellent, but special praise is due for Fionn Whitehead and the characteristically superb Mark Rylance, who conveys with even the smallest movements a certain spirit and sense of duty. Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are also deserving of acclaim in their pared-down pilot roles.

Dunkirk represents Christopher Nolan’s greatest artistic triumph to date, which is to say that his latest film does not have the mass appeal of, say, the Batman films. Dunkirk is also his furthest departure from his signature style, though his usual calling signs––a fascination with time and the nature of heroism, non-linear storytelling and experiments with perspective––make it, unquestionably, a Nolan film. Its shortcomings––and there are, of course, shortcomings––pale into insignificance in what is a taut and deeply involving film, masterfully conceived and beautifully executed, and an instant classic––never mind an Oscar contender.