Before we get things started, I’ve a quick point to make: can we stop describing every movie with a sizable budget that goes for a streak of realism as “Nolan-ized” or “Nolan-esque”? As inaccurate as the term is, suggesting that Christopher Nolan invented making movies “serious” is simply ludicrous. A great film maker he very well may be, but even HE would have a hard time making the Second World War appear any more serious than it actually bloody was.
No, forget “realism”, Nolan’s chief loves are the manipulation of time, perception and perspective and how cinema can exploit and play with these concepts to create drama and tension from unexpected situations. Both Interstellar and Inception have planets or realities where time moves at different speeds from everywhere else, Batman Begins and Momento play heavily with flashbacks to drop nonlinear key moments into the main story and The Prestige and The Dark Knight deal with tricksy, labyrinthine plots that continuously pull the rug out from it’s protagonists and audiences – nothing is what it seems.
So where does Dunkirk – the directors first stab at warfare – sit? Well chiefly, it’s nestled snuggly in the comfy armchair labelled “screwing with time”.
Dunkirk is a film of three main story lines, all of which take place over different periods time but are manipulated to fit within the same running time. The first story is about the withdrawal of British troops and their nerve wracking wait on the beach which takes place over a week. We follow various soldiers as they attempt several desperate plans to leave the coast before the Germans arrive while fighter planes sporadically staffe the beach. Interwoven with this is story two; that of a man and his sons heading over to France on their private boat to help with the evacuation which takes place over the course of one day and details their rescuing of the survivor of a sunken ship who’s trauma may or may not result in him turning violent. Finally the third thread runs the course of only a single hour and concerns three pilots racing their spitfires over the channel to lend the beach some much needed air support which details the exact planning needed to launch air support over the channel when you only have limited fuel.
Unbearable tension is the name of the game here. People with limited time and resources desperately trying to do whatever they can in order to survive and not all of it honorable. Nolan keeps the whole film encased in a time capsule of history. No in depth catching up of events to bring us up to speed and no resolution at the end to assure the audience that the allies turned the tide. We just this particular week and that’s it – no context, no long game, no ramifications, just a sealed bubble of warfare that everyone’s trying to survive in. It’s a horribly effective tactic, quite unlike most other war films before it which mercilessly adds to the sense of stranded isolation with brutal efficiency.
Another thing Nolan chooses to use to differentiate his movie from other warfaring kind is a suprising lack of bombast you’d expect from a man who flipped an actual full sized truck in the middle of a Chicago high street. While Spielberg shell-shocked you with a frenetic vision of a violent Hell with Saving Private Ryan’s D-day landings, Nolan goes for a slow, subtle sense of mounting dread, built with long shots of foam flecked, dystopian beaches and the unyielding tick of a watch on the soundtrack. It is, frankly, maddening and when something does happen, the sharp clang of a bullet or the terrifying shriek of a diving bomber, it all turns inward, leaving you less with the thought that “Oh God, I hope they don’t die.” and more with the thought “Please God, don’t let ME die!”
That a movie has made me so tense that I instinctively feared for my OWN life speaks incredible volumes of the directorial artistry on display.
So are there ANY weak points? Mere niggles, really. The story format, so majestically handled throughout the runtime suddenly becomes clumsy as Hell as the plot lines finally converge, tripping up on it’s own tangled continuity for an ungainly 10 minutes or so. The strong cast which includes such names as Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, while all putting in great work (yes, even Harry Styles) are, by necessity, pawns for Nolan to move around for maximum effect which does nothing to alleviate the claims that Nolan is somewhat of a “cold” director – but then, with no clear lead character, the ensemble effect lends an effective sense of unpredictable danger because without anyone actually standing out, anyone is fair game to not make it home.
Of course, that’s Nolan’s plan as he’s never been one for spoon feeding story. Making you LIVE the movie rather than merely watch it, for a lot of the running time your main players are mute, obscured or morally compromised in order to play with your expectations. Is this character mute because he’s terrified, or is he attempting something more sinister, like hiding an accent maybe? Is Cillian Murphy’s shell shocked shipwreck survivor going to finally snap and turn violent? Why exactly does Tom Hardy love obscuring his face behind muffley masks in movies so much?
A challenging, gruelling watch, Dunkirk ain’t exactly a “fun” night out but it IS a moving one and the cinematography is STUNNING, but be warned – the tension in this movie is so great that stomach cramps and ground-down molars are all but guaranteed by a film that, I guess, Nolan-izes the war film after all…