Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan at his best
Director: Christopher Nolan Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy, Aneurin Barnard, Barry Keoghan Running Time: 107 minutes
There is something perfect about Christopher Nolan directing a war film. Christopher Nolan, often brilliant, sometimes befuddling, always big. The man who turned superhero vs cartoon villains stories into post-9/11 think pieces and insisted that dreams have very strict rules. The man who directed Anne Hathaway monologuing among the stars about the meaning of love with all the tender feeling of an alien looking in at her through the window. Nolan has made his name with meticulous filmmaking and technical prowess rather than emotional depth and his 10th and possibly best film puts him at his greatest distance; he’s a general surveying a map moving tiny pieces across it, planning explosions not speeches. Nolan’s telling of the evacuation of British forces from Northern France after the disastrous battle of Dunkirk certainly has the emotions there if you want them – this actually happened, people actually lived or died as a consequence of what’s depicted here – but only Kenneth Branagh as a Commander overseeing the events, has much time for teary-eyed bluster for the homeland. Everyone else is too busy scrambling for survival.
A particularly strong indication that this film is the best presentation of Nolan as a director is that his clever-cogs quirks actually aid the final product. His insistence that this is a film that must be seen the way it was shot, on IMAX and on film, is not exactly the most egalitarian perspective (you can catch Dunkirk on 70mm at the IFI or on IMAX at Cineworld, any out-of-county readers are out of luck unfortunately). See it on IMAX, on film or any way that you can, Nolan’s obsessive and stubborn approach will still provide incredible spectacle as the old school directing, without computer effects shows off crashing planes, explosions, sinking ships and long, long stretches of beach filled with bodies, the broken, the buried and the barely hanging on. Even the signature structural tinkering, seen before in Interstellar, Inception and of course, Memento, provides payoff. In depicting the evacuation efforts, the story here is told in a not-entirely-linear triptych. It starts with ‘The Mole’, the beach where British soldiers rushing for boats to rescue them while Stuka dive bombers annihilate them from above, with the focus on a tentative alliance of necessity between three stranger soldiers played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles. Then there’s The Sea, where Mark Rylance takes his son and young Barry Keoghan across the Channel in their small boat to rescue as many as they possibly can, picking up a traumatised Cillian Murphy along the way. Finally there’s The Air, where a small team of pilots (including the typically muffled Tom Hardy) head towards the beach to lend their assistance. The three sequences play out over the course of a week, a day and an hour respectively, an impressive move both structurally and narratively that treats time like an accordion and starts squeezing hard very quickly. Constantly cutting between the different timeframes rather than showing them in sequence keeps the pace of the film unrelenting, it provides only the narrowest moments of relief before something new (or old) goes wrong and essentially spreads the film’s climax throughout its entire running time. It’s a unique and impressive take on a historical film. After all, no matter how many timelines we’re shown or bullet points we learn off, we tend to think of history in blocks – ‘the 60s’, ‘the Dark Ages’, ‘World War 2’, and now here, ‘Dunkirk’.
The sense of dread that Nolan creates is established early at the Mole, when Fionn Whitehead’s young soldier, dying to relieve himself, stumbles across another soldier burying a dead body. And taking its boots. There’s no talk about what awaits back home or why they came out here, these two wordlessly agree to work together to get off the beach. Through the long lens of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, that escape looks impossible, the beach seems to go on forever, a muted and murky sight filled with men who look exactly as defeated as they literally are. When the two soldiers are later joined by Harry Styles, conflict comes in through his impressive performance of frustration born through shame. He feels like a failure and in this part of the film, where self-interest is understandably at its highest, and every endeavour is turned rapidly into a race not to die without much regard for morality, its easiest to agree with him.
This is most certainly a director’s film rather than an actor’s one, but in The Sea, the conceptual middle and emotional core, Rylance, Murphy and Dublin’s own Barry Keoghan as naïve schoolboy George provide the highlights performance-wise. Never dwelling too long, it’s nevertheless in these parts that some sense of what is being fought for, or perhaps how, bringing its biggest gulfs between the broken and unbreakable together between PTSD-suffering Murphy and Rylance, keeping calm and carrying on. It’s also here than Nolan confines his tendency to ask ‘Big Questions’ to something quick and to the point; a morality play that unfolds to frank and unsentimental end.
Sentimentality does manage to poke its head out in short bursts during The Air, as the dogfights between German planes and the English Spitfires display old-fashioned action and heroism. It’s not easy to notice when the three acts are spread throughout, but the screen does seem to get brighter and brighter as the ‘beginning’ moves into the ‘middle’ and ‘end’, and as the tiny planes zip around the massive blue ocean, Nolan shows his visual flair and most strongly recalls classic war films, the thrills delivered feeling so in the moment, precise and real. Hardy, acting mostly with his wide, steely eyes, makes a hero out of a man we barely know the name of and can hardly hear speak.
The horrors of war are displayed in Dunkirk as an all-out immersive assault on the senses, with the sounds especially booming through the screen. Hans Zimmer’s score is as ear-shattering as ever, a mix of rising notes and ticking watches that adds to the pressure-cooker feeling. The Germans are never shown, this is a film about the struggle rather than the enemy, but the sound from them is enough, bullets and bombs are like jump scares here, dialled way up past 11 to be incredibly loud and oppressive. The images Nolan and van Hoytema put on screen range are often haunting, gripping or horrifying, shifting the camera disorientingly as walls become ceilings and water levels and the darkness enclose the screen. This isn’t like looking at a nightmare, it’s all set up to look as real as possible, terrible but real, a recreation not of a soldier’s trauma after the fact but their grim and desperate flight-or-fight during. The hard thing, as numerous character say throughout, is that home is so close that they practically see it. What seems small to them isn’t the same to the audience at a remove, looking at a big scale picture, so Nolan shows the agony by confining the characters, boxing and folding and trapping them until the three timelines finally come together to climax. So near yet so far. A defeat that feels like victory. Is it any wonder that the Dunkirk story appeals to a director whose obsession is tinkering with perspective?
In the past, I have said of Nolan that he makes Kubrick films for Spielberg audiences. Dunkirk shows flashes of those filmmakers and several others, including some who were depicting events like this shortly after the War or even during it. But this is a Christopher Nolan film made, it seems, for Christopher Nolan, an even blend of his impulses, epic but claustrophobic, clinical but rousing. His unrelenting style, its impersonal air that worked against the messages and character studies previous Nolan films have attempted, fits seamlessly into the wide scope of this war film. It doesn’t go into great depth talking about the meaning of war, but it boils it down to its most simplistic aspect, the effort to live, and puts that on screen in a comprehensive, at times relentless experience. For a story about British stiff upper-lippery, the nation’s stiffest director delivers considerably. It’s an escape from Europe that actually has some dignity to it and even, amidst the imagery of scrambles off sinking ships and (British) planes going up in smoke, a faint feeling of hope.(4.5 / 5)