The director Christopher Nolan began work on his acclaimed new film Dunkirk before the United Kingdom decided to exit the European Union last June. Dunkirk was not intended as a Brexit film. However, by choosing Dunkirk as his theme Nolan was always addressing the question of national identity. The evacuation of the British Army from France in 1940 is one of the most evocative collective memories in British culture. Moreover, while conceived before the E.U. referendum the film was released over a year after the result, when Brexit had become the dominant issue in British politics. Nolan is far too skillful an artist to miss the significance of a film on this topic coming out at this moment. It is a work that cannot avoid the contemporary crisis of British identity, accentuated by the decision to leave the European Union and must ultimately be interpreted in this febrile context.
Indeed, the entire movie is structured around the question of British nationalism. The film makes no attempt to be a history of the evacuation of the British Army from France and is quite unlike the movies The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far. On the contrary, the narrative is deliberately sparse. The characters, context, and dialogue are thin and the cinematography bare. The film is not a story and still less a history. Rather, through a sequence of iconic scenes, Nolan actively seeks to revive Dunkirk as a national myth in the 21st century. The question is: What kind of identity does Dunkirk advocate in an era of now bitter national recrimination?
There are brief moments in the film when Nolan seems to interrogate the legend of Dunkirk. Commander Bolton, a naval officer played by Kenneth Branagh, stays on the dock at the end of the film to help save the French. Having run out of fuel saving a troop ship from German bombers, a Spitfire piloted by Tom Hardy’s Lieutenant Farrier lands not in the United Kingdom, but in France. These scenes may imply a cosmopolitan internationalism against the insular provincialism of the Dunkirk myth, though this is unclear. The episodes are fleeting and ambiguous. For instance, the beach landing of the Spitfire may have been staged not to undercut the nationalist narrative but only because it provides a glorious cinematic opportunity to celebrate that iconic plane, which Nolan indulges thoroughly.
Moreover, these brief asides are completely swamped by the rest of action. The drama focuses on five sinkings: a hospital ship, two troop ships, a fishing boat, and a Spitfire are all immersed. In each case, British soldiers or airmen have only moments to escape before they are drowned. Each sinking re-enacts the British predicament at Dunkirk: the desperate race of British soldiers to get home before they are inundated.
In this way, home — and the race for it — becomes the central motif of the entire film. The noun, “home,” recurs in the dialogue articulated by all the major actors. Indeed, the irony that soldiers in Dunkirk can practically see home with its White Cliffs and, yet, cannot reach it, is pointedly commented upon on two separate occasions. Home is the only redemption from the alienating emptiness of the French coast. Moreover, in order for British soldiers to escape, home has to come to them. No one else can save them.
After two near drownings, the rescue of Tommy — the soldier at the center of the plot — is deeply symbolic. He is eventually saved by a small boat from Weymouth that has already picked up a downed Spitfire pilot and a shell-shocked Army officer. The boat is crewed by Mr. Dawson, his teenage son, and a friend. In contrast to the impotent military personnel he rescues, Dawson, played by Mark Rylance, is the true embodiment of humble English stoicism. Only he can bring the troops home.
The film is an extraordinary aural experience and its music, which plays a central role in the drama, resounds with the theme of domestic redemption For almost the entire movie, the score consists of two dissonant sonorities: a relentless metronomic beat and a disturbing metallic groaning that sounds like a train pulling out of the station. The two motifs evoke the oppressive acceleration of time.
However, this tense atonalism is ruptured by the film’s climax. When Dawson’s boat arrives with the fleet of small ships at Dunkirk, the sound of the film is transformed. The percussive dissonance of the main theme is dispelled by the radiant harmonies of Edward Elgar’s Nimrod. International audiences may miss the significance of this musical interlude. For a British person, its resonances are unmistakable. In the United Kingdom, Elgar, whose career reached its peak in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, is revered as the quintessentially English composer. Nimrod has become the anthem of national pathos and pride; it is a hymn to the bucolic homeland and the English way of life. Any ambiguities in the film are eliminated at this point. As the troops cheer on the pier at Dunkirk to the opening chords of Nimrod, the audience is conscripted into a facile patriotic celebration. Their enrollment is completed when, in the very final scene, Tommy reads Winston Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech on a London-bound train in England.
Nolan’s film, then, finally affirms an unselfconscious and conventional account of British national identity. Whatever his intentions, Dunkirk celebrates an arrogant insularity.
In this way, Dunkirk represents a major neglect of duty by a filmmaker, who consciously conceives of himself as an auteur with a duty to disturb preconceptions and pieties. Indeed, many of Nolan’s previous films, such as Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, have deliberately sought to disorient audiences. Yet precisely when the United Kingdom requires critical self-reflection, as it leaves the European Union and England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland renegotiate their relationships with each other, Nolan fails to challenge his audience at all. He proposes only a worn, Anglo-centric stereotype Despite its undoubted technical ingenuity, Dunkirk becomes the film of Theresa May’s Conservative Party or, even, Nigel Farage’s U.K. Independence Party.
In one of the last and most eloquent scenes of the film, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire, having run out of fuel, glides silently over the beach at Dunkirk. The pristine lines of the Spitfire’s elliptical wings are mesmerizing. Nolan impresses an unforgettable image on the audience. Yet, in 2017, as Britain must define a new role for itself in the world and re-invent an inclusive, outward-looking and progressive national identity, it might be possible to give this image a second interpretation. Like Hardy’s Spitfire, the Dunkirk myth — and its vision of Albion — has itself run out of fuel. It is time for the British to move on. They need rescuing from themselves.
Anthony King holds the Chair of War Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. He is currently finishing a book on divisional command, entitled Command: the twenty-first century general, which will be published next year.