Perfect Scenes: Dunkirk

I’m on holidays this week, so in lieu of a review here’s a long awaited edition of this series.

I was watching Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk for the third time, and the first time on a small screen. I was wondering how well the film would hold up in that format and, while you’ll never be able to get the full experience without an encompassing screen or the roaring of theatre audio, the film is too good in terms of its pacing, music, cinematography and script for it to still be considered as anything other than a masterpiece. I could pick a dozen scenes from it in terms of describing “perfection”, but one especially stuck with me on this watching.

Dunkirk“He’s dead mate” 

Tom Glynn-Carney’s Peter is helping to load stranded sailors onto his father’s yacht. The exhausted soldiers take space where they can, and in the process move the prone form of Barry Keoghan’s George, earlier injured in a tussle with Cillian Murphy’s terrified soldier. Peter, seeing the soldiers move George with little kindness calls out for them to “be careful down there”. The soldier next to George, played by Harry Styles, looking exhausted and tired and sounding toneless, not even human with the oil stuck to his face, says “He’s dead mate”.

If there is one running theme through Dunkirk, it is the question as to how people react in the most trying of circumstances, when your existence is at stake in a scenario where to cut and run is an available option, in different ways. Nolan depicts the Dunkirk evacuation in apocalyptic terms, with established orders breaking down in the face of a quest for survival. The three separate plot lines each feature characters who, in this terrible quasi-Armageddon, are forced to choose between looking out purely for the self, or trying to aid the collective. Tommy and Gibson try and bluff their way onto an evacuating ship, later fellow soldiers are close to murdering each other on the beached boat. Farrier has to choose between leaving Dunkirk’s air space with his fuel decreasing, or staying to help the soldiers knowing he will have to stay there. Mr Dawson’s sails his yacht into deadly danger, while those around him plea for him to relent and turn for home.

In that moment on the Moonstone, Peter and this soldier lie at the crossroads of this choice. Between embracing humanity and the care of your fellow man, or giving into the chaotic brutishness of Dunkirk beach, and carrying it with you when you leave. Peter looks down into the hold of the Moonstone, his friend dead, and a soldier looking at him with an air of wondering why Peter even cares, who answers “Careful down there” with “He’s dead mate”, as if the pronouncement of death makes any duty of care irrelevant.

And Peter responds softly, after a torturous few beats, the kind of pause wherein a mountain of life-defining emotions are become manifest, “…So be bloody careful with him then”. And the soldier, without acknowledging what has happened with any words, proceeds to be a bit more careful with the body of George.

The triumph of humanity can be seen in the arrival of the “Little Boats” at Dunkirk beach, in the choice of Farrier to sacrifice his freedom to save a few more lives, in Dawson’s refusal to turn back from the terror ahead of him. These are all powerful moments. But I do feel like the most powerful, relative to its subtlety, is that quieter moment in the hold of the Moonstone, when a soldier dead to the world and the social contract of caring for the remains of the deceased, is reminded that such things have not ceased to be, and are not worthless. Peter has looked into the face of war at Dunkirk, at madness with the deranged soldier, at death with George, but refuses to give into the chaotic temptation of selfishness above all things. The world is not Dunkirk. And with those seven words, that choice is made clear.

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