Director: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Hardy
Time. Time spent waiting. Time warped by distance. Time forgotten. Dream time. Christopher Nolan’s cinema is an arena in which time is a constant preoccupation, repeatedly manipulated, palpated, stretched or re-sequenced as though the British director were trying to eclipse its influence through sheer will. He may already have done so with the popularity of his rigid blockbusters ensuring their likely legacy beyond his own span of time on this planet. After the M Night Shyamalan-styled excesses of Interstellar, Dunkirk finds Nolan returning to Earth, and hurtling us into the past.
Dunkirk ticks. While Hans Zimmer’s score plays with similar themes to the ones that under-pinned the Joker in The Dark Knight (that insectoid hum), it is countered at virtually all times by the impatient ticking of an unseen stopwatch, dicing up time. In turn, Nolan’s narrative divides. We have action that takes place on the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of a week, we have the endeavours of a civilian boat crossing the channel to rescue soldiers taking place over the course of one day, and lastly there’s conflict in the skies as a spitfire pilot (Hardy) flies into harm’s way over the course of an hour. It’s a neat gimmick. The three stories don’t quite shift with the same fluidity as the dreams of Inception, but still the dynamic gives the film that definitive Nolan stamp. That restless sense of forward motion, even as events navigate a chronological zigzag.
When speaking about Dunkirk, Nolan has made mention of recent innovative blockbusters Gravity and Mad Max: Fury Road, which seem unlikely bedfellows for this movie considering the topic, but having seen the film it makes good sense. What Nolan has attempted to lift from those aforementioned features is the sense of singular immediacy that they both share. Dunkirk is not a character piece and despite how it fiddles with the clock it is not a particularly complex creation either, but it does aim to keep the viewer experiencing things in the moment through sound and images. Nolan wants you inside the film, flinching at bullet zings (of which there are surprisingly few) or holding your breath when soldiers plummet into bracing sea water.
On this front Dunkirk is a barnstorming success and firmly requests that you see it in a cinema space (a cathedral to Nolan; an opinion we share). The experience is captivating, for the most part, and Nolan gets us used to the disparate narratives quickly so that he can jump between them without yanking us out of the moment. Like a man spinning plates, he asks us to keep an eye on all of them, and it feels quite natural. We stop feeling the cuts.
Part of this comes from how easy it is to put yourself in the shoes of the characters in the film. The civilian boat crossing the channel to give heroic aid is captained by Mark Rylance’s everyman Mr Dawson with the aid of young Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and George (Barry Keoghan). Dawson’s sense of duty is written in the lines of his face; he’s a man who’s lived through The Great War, after all, while his wards steel courage where they can. On the beaches we follow the urgent endeavours of Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to find passage across the channel. A man of few words, his committed drive is not born of cowardice but rather from the consuming desire to survive . His journey will test the lengths he will go to in order to do just that. This thread also explores the bonds between men as he makes an insistent yet wordless connection to fellow grunt Gibson (Aneurin Bonnard).
Hardy’s pilot Farrier is the outlier in this regard, then; less knowable than the other characters for the mask of his flight gear. Farrier is the most boldly heroic figure we encounter and a rare case of the film lionising any of its inhabitants. In terms of casting it feels like a wink from Nolan too, inverting Hardy’s prior appearance as Bane, aviator jacket and all.
Dunkirk clips along too, coming in at a positively brisk 106 minutes. After the bloat of the last few Nolan pictures, such brevity is a welcome uncharacteristic move. And the reason for it is that desire to keep the viewer locked in the ‘now’ even as we hop about in time. Even Alfonso Cuarón and George Miller took breathers. Nolan does not. As a result there is a minor sense of fatigue as the second act lulls momentarily into the third and the sinking of potential lifesaving vessels becomes ever so slightly repetitive, but there really is very little fat here. I’ve previously accused Nolan of forever hurrying, that his films resemble dense architecture more than stories that have room to breathe. That restless tendency of his continues throughout the entirety of Dunkirk, but the crucial difference here is that this impatience has finally found an appropriate container. It makes Dunkirk one of his better films in a little while.
The technique is well worth championing also. A traditionalist through and through, Nolan wows us with practical effects and stunt work blended seamlessly with unobtrusive CGI. Dunkirk feels earthy and wet and harsh and cold, and not once does a visual element feel like a deception. Integral to this is the supreme camera work of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. In keeping with Nolan’s previous work the framing of action is always sleek and tasteful, but there’s also a kind of deliberate lack of fuss here. The camera roves, long takes are permitted. It’s a clever thing to precisely document what feels immediate.
So why the score below (you’ve looked)? Because while Dunkirk has you in the moment, absolutely, Nolan’s commitment to that end may have robbed the experience of anything more lasting. The film is a heady ride, one that only stumbles into clumsy sentimentality on a couple of occasions (thanks to Zimmer getting a tad overzealous), but as immersive as the experience is, it’s one you will likely leave in the cinema. By the time you’ve gotten home, Dunkirk may have started disappearing already. Nolan’s film is a hallucination of time travel. I urge you to see it in the cinema because, just as Gravity was, it’s something that I think requires that arena in order to fall into it fully. But it all feels a shade too technical. For all it’s bravado, the most haunting moment for me is the simplest; tears welling in the eyes of Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) caught by Van Hoytema during an artful push-in. Something, incidentally, that probably won’t register if you watch it on an iPhone.