In Dunkirk, Cillian Murphy plays the shell-shocked soldier, and Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor.
In Dunkirk, Cillian Murphy plays the shell-shocked soldier, and Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor. Warner Brother

In his essay/review of Christopher Nolan's blockbuster war epic Dunkirk, Jonathan Raban, the author of the late-20th century literary masterpieces Bad Land and Passage to Juneau, described his personal connection with the military catastrophe that almost forced Britain to surrender to Hitler in the summer of 1940. (Raban's father was one of the 338,226 soldiers rescued from the beaches/hell of Dunkirk.) But he also described the way Nolan's reconstruction of the massive and spiritually/physically devastating evacuation was not only too clean, but lacked pity, the pity of war.

Raban writes:

Watching Dunkirk, I was again and again reminded of Wilfred Owen, the British poet who was killed, aged 25, in the final week of World War I, and wrote, "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." That is the problem with Dunkirk: It is too hurried, too eager to move on to the next shot, from sea to sky, from sky to the soldiers on the beach, to bother with the pity.

It is not an accident that Raban quoted a poet because, if you read to the end of his essay, you find what he means by pity is precisely poetry. Dunkirk contains almost no poetry. It has the sublime, but as Immanuel Kant taught many years ago, the sublime is not beautiful. And what is the beautiful? Kant's successor in the German school, G.W.F. Hegel, described it as "powerless and helpless." This is the core of Wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic philosophy that emphasizes impermanence and imperfection. Nolan is a perfectionist, and so he can never be a poet. Awe rather than pity is his mode.

But there is one scene in which Raban saw a glimpse of pity. It happens when Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian sailor who with two civilians (his son and a very young man) is heading, on orders from the Navy, to Dunkirk in "a tubby sloop-rigged motor sailer" called "Moonstone," recognizes that a solider (Cillian Murphy) they rescued from the island of a sunk barge, is suffering from shell-shock. The expression on Dawson's face shows great weight and sympathy for the soldier, whose shell-shocked head is screaming "GO BACK HOME." But all Dawson can do is pity him because there is no turning back. They are going to Dunkirk. They a have orders. They have a mission. They have to transport as many soldiers away from the very hell that scrambled the soldiers' brains.

And it is here I must show how this film is a dub of Brexit, and how Brexit is a dub of the Dunkirk disaster. We see it all in the small boat, Moonstone. It happens after the sloop returns to England with loads of soldiers saved from death on the shores of Dunkirk. One of the three civilians who went across the English Channel is dead. It's the young one with red cheeks and bouncy hair. The boy was ready for action. He was killed before reaching Dunkirk by the shell-shocked soldier. Upon realizing Moonstone's destination, the soldier pushed the boy aside, who was between him and the Dunkirk-bound sailor, Dawson. The boy fell to the floor and broke his head on something hard. Nothing could save him. The whole business was so shameful and un-British; the instant they returned to the seat of Mars, it was their duty to inform the authorities of the treasonous murder.

But instead, the civilians don't say a word about the incident. The two witnesses leave the boat in silence and later tell the locals that the boy is a hero, that he died for his country, that he faced the moment of danger with no fear. The papers eagerly publish this lie. It's what people needed to hear. And here we have in miniature the whole moral cosmos of Nolan's Dunkirk, the founding work of Brexit cinema. It's not just about Brexit/Dunkirk being a one-to-one dub: the Brits fleeing a Europe dominated by the German military/the Brits fleeing a Europe dominated by German banks. It's sadder than that. It is the acceptance that the lie is better than the truth. What's left when Britain is no longer a superpower, no longer the center of the financial world, no longer the keeper of a military that can batter "down all Chinese walls" and force "the barbarians... to capitulate?" Lying. Brits lying to Brits. Brexit, like many of stories that circulated after the defeat of Dunkirk, spawned one lie after another.