The subject sounds enticing: the legend of Dunkirk tells of an array of unprepared civilians assembling an armada of fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, motor launches, paddle steamers, barges and lifeboats to rescue an army from a battle-swept beach. What might cinema reveal of the logistical skills, resourcefulness, courage, doubts, arguments and fears of the citizenry involved?
Yet Nolan’s film chooses to ignore tales such as that of the Medway Queen, a paddle steamer that brought home 7,000 troops in seven round trips and shot down three German planes, or the Royal Daffodil, which returned 9,500 soldiers after blocking a hole below the waterline with a mattress. Instead, we encounter just one boat, skippered by a saintly Mark Rylance, comically attired in his Sunday best. The travails such a figure might have endured were apparently not dramatic enough. Instead, Rylance’s character is subjected to a bizarre set of events garnished with grating sentimentality.
For it is not the dynamics of the people’s armada that interest Nolan. He is more concerned with what is happening on and above Dunkirk’s beaches. What’s mainly happening, however, is that lots of soldiers are waiting around. Escapades, not altogether convincing, are therefore contrived for a few of them. Some bombs fall, some ships are sunk. Commanders mutter briefly but sagely to each other. In the skies, fighter pilots conduct what seems like an endlessly repeated dogfight. One plane runs out of fuel, although not as quickly as audiences might have hoped. And that’s sort of it.
Film-makers usually instil interest in their protagonists by giving them backstories and meaningful dialogue, thereby creating characters who can be engaged in drama. In Dunkirk, these things don’t happen.