Watching Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s W.W. II film opening July 21, I kept trying to come up with terms to classify it. It was a dance piece, then a music video, then a poem, then a prayer. The film is many things. Something it’s not is a conventional war film in any way I thought it would be. Nolan, a technician with luxe taste and a seriousness in his heart, has made his most artful, impressionistic film to date. Though no less precise than his other elegant contraptions, Dunkirk is a true departure for Nolan, perhaps an exciting indication that he is moving into more pensive, experimental territory, just as another blockbuster king did 24 years ago with another W.W. II film, Schindler’s List.
Dunkirk plays like a dance piece when it first introduces us to the British and French soldiers stranded on a windswept beach. Following a harrowing street scene, Nolan follows a young soldier (haunted, vulpine Fionn Whitehead) out to this lonely stretch of sand strewn with seafoam. Enemy planes buzz overhead, laden with bombs, and the soldiers—all waiting to board ships that could rescue them from this bleak limbo—duck for cover in unison.