Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is finally making its way into theaters this weekend, and with it comes one of the few big screen depictions of this pivotal moment in both British and World War II history. Only Leslie Norman’s 1958 war film of the same name has also chronicled the events of Operation Dynamo, in which the British Air Force and Navy embarked on a rescue mission to save thousands of Allied soldiers stranded on Dunkirk beach. But anyone who has seen Joe Wright’s “Atonement” has been to Dunkirk before, courtesy of a jaw-dopping long take that ranks among cinema’s finest.
The showcase scene in Wright’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel is a five-minute tracking shot that follows James McAvoy’s wounded British soldier Robbie Turner as he wanders Dunkirk beach and is forced to confront the reality that he most likely isn’t leaving anytime soon. This one shot is about all the time “Atonement” spends on Dunkirk, and yet it’s so meticulously choreographed and blocked that it’s able to capture in just five minutes the scope and sensation of being one of the soldiers.
Unlike the immersive tracking shots used in films like “Gravity” and “Goodfellas,” long takes that pull you into the setting alongside the characters, the “Atonement” one shot is far more removed and observational. Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey don’t necessarily want to bring you onto the beach, they want to make you a voyeur to this grim moment in history. The long take has divided viewers, with detractors calling it a showboating act of technical prowess. The tracking shot is hardly subtle, but that’s the point. By being forced to observe what’s occurring, we begin to understand the soldiers’ experiences.
The longer the camera refuses to cut, the more a growing level of hopelessness and aimlessness boils over. There is so much happening in this one scene — soldiers shooting horses, wounded men in agony, laughing men joking around, soldiers singing — and McGarvey’s roaming camera refuses to let the viewer’s eye settle on one focal point. The tracking shot bottles up all the chaotic distress of being on Dunkirk and fills the frame with it. You’re not sure where to look or what’s happening; something in the background takes you out of the foreground, and vice versa. By forcing you to witness Dunkirk in this way, Wright creates a sense of confusion and panic that surely mimics the soldiers’ own.
As the camera makes its way from the beach to the boardwalk and up to a raised platform, the camera turns and ends on a final image: The entirety of the beach stretched out before the viewer, hazy smoke covering the horizon and so many soldiers stranded it’s impossible to count. Suddenly, McAvoy’s realization that he won’t be leaving anytime soon gets multiplied by the hundreds and the horror of Dunkirk settles in. It’s a potent way to end the shot, expanding our perspective of Dunkirk from a few soldiers to many, and it proves just how inescapable Dunkirk was for thousands of young men.
With Nolan’s “Dunkirk” opening, it couldn’t be a more perfect time to revisit Wright’s one-shot achievement in “Atonement.” You can watch the scene in full in the embedded video below.