Directed by Christopher Nolan
On general release from 21st July 2017
Reviewed by Nick Daly
Back in 2014, in a review for Interstellar, I remarked that director Christopher Nolan’s films had increasingly grown in scope, and that Interstellar had reached such colossal heights of ambition that it’s a relief he could only possibly get smaller. In 2017, with his latest film Dunkirk, that statement has thankfully materialised.
In fact, Nolan has retreated to the opposite end of the spectrum, leaving behind the fantastical elements of science fiction to create a grounded, fact-based historical event. A war film is certainly no small undertaking, but there’s no overwrought themes pervading through the narrative, just one of sheer survival. It’s uncharted territory for the director, whose filmography begins with neo-noir crime dramas before delving into the conceptual ideas of superheroes, magicians and mind extractors, and it’s intriguing and even a little concerning to think of what a Christopher Nolan World War II epic would look like. ‘You haven’t seen the war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino’ read the tagline for 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and the very same could be said of Tarantino’s contemporary, Nolan.
Despite this anticipation, however, Nolan’s directorial traits are apparent within Dunkirk’s first moments; when young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) pounds through the streets of Dunkirk, narrowly evading gunshots before stumbling into the vastness of the famous beach, the gritty realistic aesthetic that extends throughout Nolan’s films is apparent, and it’s never been more effective.
Nolan also displays his fixation with time when two other narrative threads are introduced, supplying a view of Dunkirk from all angles with a week on land, a day at sea and an hour in the sky.
The converging narratives follow Tommy and his attempts to escape Dunkirk, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his private boat participating in the famous evacuation of 300,000 soldiers, while Spitfire pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) target oncoming enemies and provide air support for the soldiers awaiting rescue below.
Nolan is exhibiting his tendency to manipulate time but not in a way that defines the film like Momento (2001) or Inception (2010), but in a subtler fashion so that the focus is always on the most important factor: Dunkirk.
This is what distinguishes Dunkirk from Nolan’s other films, in that while much of them primarily focus on plot, meticulously orchestrated like the mechanics of a machine, Dunkirk is an altogether different beast; an atmospheric and mostly wordless production resembling something akin to a mood piece.
It’s not, however, a subdued and meandering creation by Sofia Coppola. Dunkirk grasps the viewer from its opening scenes and rarely ever loosens its grip, essentially 106 minutes of unrelenting action but not in the bland, mind-numbing sense you might be accustomed to in the current cinematic landscape. Its action sequences are visceral, immersive and at times riveting, aided by accurate props and locations (actual boats from the evacuation were used) and a complete lack of CGI to produce uncompromising authenticity.
Nolan previously attempted a less mechanical approach with Interstellar by shifting his gears towards emotion, but its forced sentimentality ultimately weakened the narrative, and while it would be expected for this sentimentality to rear itself for a depiction of the most heroic act in British history, Nolan instead opts for a bleaker, less idealistic view of Dunkirk than you might expect from a Hollywood production.
There’s no soaring, dramatic soundtrack that another director might think befits the heroism of Dunkirk’s story, instead composer Hans Zimmer decides on a muted, dread-filled score, infused with the tick-tick-ticking of a clock that runs through the entire film until its last moments. Any emotion felt by the audience during this intensity is conjured organically, with Nolan handling emotion much more successfully than before and displaying growth as a director as a result.
With such an intent on tone and atmosphere, however, other components of the film seem less focused. Throughout his filmography Nolan’s characterisation has generally felt stilted, his characters feeling as if they’re simply components in crafting a larger picture, with Nolan’s preoccupation on the film itself and its themes and structure.
In Dunkirk’s unique case, both plot and character are sparse in their development and feel somewhat lacking in engagement, as Nolan essentially aims to create a cinematic experience rather than a story. With Nolan declared by some to be a modern-day Stanley Kubrick, this minimal and rather detached ambience puts him more in the realm of Kubrick than ever before.
It’s a testament to the quality of Nolan’s directing, however, that despite these lacking components the viewer remains compelled by what’s on screen. Regardless of the absence of development, experiencing with these characters the immersive and truthful brutality of their situation, it’s hard not to acquire a level of attachment to them by the film’s end.
When Churchill’s speech is read out from a newspaper, the famous words “we will not surrender…” playing over the film’s closing sequence, there’s a genuine sense that the film is honouring this moment in history, and that Nolan has achieved something he’s continually been criticised for lacking throughout his career: a film with heart.