Dunkirk is first and foremost a movie about Dunkirk; the amazing deliverance of almost 300000 British soldiers from the French coast during World War II, largely via civilian charters. Inevitably, however, the film throws up other bigger issues, matters of enduring interest and concern. It is these that I would like to address in shorthand here:
1. Our insatiable appetite for hope: pier master Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) is a sympathetically portrayed naval officer, who serves as the herald of both the extremity in which he and his men find themselves, and the emergence of hope from the cloud-dim waters of Dunkirk. In distinction from some modern war movies which portray only the leaden hopelessness of conflict, Nolan emphasises the power of aspiration, and our appetite for deliverance (more on that below). What is achieved is an enviable balance between hard reality and hope’s horizon. The glimmer of a smile which plays on Bolton’s lips as he spies civilian vessels draw near to ‘The Mole’ powerfully captures the human predicament: marooned between the rock of our circumstance and the hard place of vitriolic adversity, but daring to smile at hope’s tentative arrival.
2. The tenderness of paternal love: Nolan has (somewhat anachronistically) been criticised in some quarters for the absence of female characters in ‘Dunkirk’, but we should be thankful for his compelling picture of masculinity, regardless. Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson is an economically drawn figure, but one whose paternal heart is evident. His mild authority, his pragmatically expressed compassion, his understated capacity for bravery, speak the name of a love that doesn’t always dare to identify itself publicly: fatherly affection. Dawson doesn’t needlessly emote, there is little effervescence to his personality, but he commands and commends, steers and reasons, and he deeply cares about the boys on board with him. Powerful indeed, inspiring as well.
3. Our stubborn and irreducible depravity: the evil of dive bombing a hospital ship is obvious, but so is the Goldingesque trawler sequence in which racism, rabid and selfish survivalism, and bullying cowardice are all too evident.
4. The enduring power of deliverance: the hemmed in men on Dunkirk beach are in need of deliverance which must be mediated through a miracle. The sight of dozens of civilian vessels emerging from the mist is deeply affecting. Even the boys on board the trawler understand both the need for and the cost of a substitute. In a world marked by cynicism about salvation, and arrogance about self-redemption, the image of uniformed men helplessly dependent on others is powerful. The relevance and power of these themes for those of us who believe in the need for personal deliverance from sin through Jesus Christ is overwhelming.