Christopher Nolan is arguably the finest storyteller working in film today, he has created stories that transcend the common tropes of cinema and baffle the audience for the best part of 20 years. Although all in themselves unique, Nolan’s films all have the trend of grounded surrealism and undeniable originality. He takes full advantage of the freedom that comes with making a film and playing around with the idea of reality, without drifting too far into science fiction. Because of this, it was to my surprise to hear that Nolan was working on a war film based on the evacuation of Dunkirk. By drawing from real events, Nolan has confined himself to history and not fiction which leads to the question: How does Nolan lend his distinctive style to a war epic, based on a true story?
First and foremost, Nolan wows us with his unwavering use of practical effects. Every ship, fighter plane and explosion was entirely produced practically. Because of this, every single frame of the film felt incredibly real and it gave the effect that the events were being documented as opposed to recreated. This realism creates tension and brings about a sense of panic and urgency when something perilous is around the corner (ie. an enemy jet honing in, or a torpedo heading straight towards a rescue ship). Accompanied by Nolan’s use of strictly large format cameras, you get a real sense of scale and magnitude of this mass evacuation, which is a credit to both him and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. This led to some beautifully crafted action sequences which is a real step up from Nolan’s previous work. Personally I found that Nolan’s directing style of action scenes was his only downfall for the Dark Knight trilogy, but for Dunkirk he captures the action for both large scale and close quarters combat expertly.
Another brilliant technical aspect of Dunkirk is the score. This is Hans Zimmer’s 6th time working with Nolan and is possibly his best work with him. He blends the music masterfully with the surroundings, making it a part of the situation itself as opposed to just background sentiment. Zimmer’s work is a constant beating heart throughout the film and despite crafting 90 minutes of constant ticking tension, he adds enough of his own style so not be repetitive. Similarly to Interstellar, Zimmer’s score knows when to be loud and when to be quiet, making it feel natural to the situation whilst it surreptitiously is tensing you up for what’s to come.
Another stylistic choice made by Nolan is the merging of 3 timelines into one. The 3 storylines are that of the stranded infantry which takes place over the course of a week; the civilian sailors who have come to their aid which is over the course of a day; and Tom Hardy’s dogfight which is over the course of one hour. I think it is important for anyone going into the film to know that in typical Nolan fashion, time in this film is distorted and manipulated. Events are shown from 3 different perspectives which can lead to confusion and have you thinking ‘haven’t I seen this before?’. However, once you get a grasp of what Nolan is conveying, it is a real masterpiece of story structure. The editing is seamless for the juxtaposition of these events – you just have to know that it is going to happen when entering the film, or like some viewers, you will be bewildered. *There is a graph by ‘HavenB3’ at the bottom to explain the converging timelines*
However, one of my gripes with the film is a writing choice made by Nolan. He has stated in interviews that he intends to capture the realism of war (with Dunkirk) as opposed to the Hollywoodised interpretations found in the likes of Saving Private Ryan (1998). Whilst this means that there are no rehearsed 5 minute speeches and unrealistic character interaction, the film is instead relieved of distinctive characters. There were people in the film playing parts, but all of them were unnamed soldiers who had less than 10 lines each. Cillian Murphy has said in an interview that Nolan’s decision to not give the characters names was because each character’s story was representative of tens of thousands of other men. However, in doing this, he makes it impossible to connect with any of the people, or care about whether they live or die. The people in the film act as a blank canvas for you to project yourself onto, as a way to make you feel like you’re in the situation with them, but I didn’t feel like this worked for me and so felt a disconnect from the characters.
In fact, some of my favourite moments from the film was towards the end and where the more subtle character moments, events that occurred because of a distinct choice from a particular character. (SPOILER AHEAD) For example, when Tom Hardy’s character at the end chooses to sacrifice himself as a P.O.W in order to save thousands of men from a fighter plane bombing, you feel a real connection with him and it was one of the few emotive scenes for me. Also at the end when Harry Styles’ character is worried about going home as a rescued soldier, as he fears he will be considered a failure by the public. However he is instead greeted with cheers and hospitality. This too, was one of the few endearing moments of the film, and had these two people had proper character set-up, they could have been great scenes. (Back to no spoilers) So, I do understand Nolan’s stylistic choice in this matter and I can see that it has worked for the majority of people who have already seen Dunkirk, but for me personally, it was a disappointment to see the film void of what I think Nolan to be best at; character.
All in all, Dunkirk is most certainly a cinematic achievement. Nolan puts his unique style on a tired genre and the 1hr 46m runtime definitely flies by. The practical effects provide for some extraordinary action scenes that are grounded with a shivering sense of realism. However, the choice to have no standout characters leaves the film short of emotion in places where it could be very effective. The film adopts a more documentary style than the typical Hollywood style war film, and although this is intentional (to give it a sense of realism), it suffers because and there is a clear lack of attachment between audience and character. This results in a noticeable lack of tension in what Nolan describes a ‘suspense thriller’.