It is poetic that in Christopher Nolan’s tenth feature film, about defeat and evacuation that the director has finally writ large and conceded to his weaknesses as a filmmaker. A point showing how far he has come as a director, continuing to advance beyond such classics as Memento, my personally favourite film and The Dark Knight, one of the greatest films of the twenty-first century. His ambition is what earned him top marks in Interstellar despite its many flaws, but one wonders viewing Dunkirk how much farther he can really progress as a filmmaker now that his strengths and most important weaknesses are so clearly mapped out.
The film contains the strongest opening of Nolan’s career. Similar to that of the IMAX opening in The Dark Knight only tighter in its execution. A party of indistinguishable scavengers dwindle down as the tension greatly increases drawing the audience in. This is where the film’s core elements are introduced; we see that fighting against an unseen seemingly unstoppable enemy force is hopeless and as we are informed the remaining soldiers are surrounded: at the point of crisis, at the point of annihilation, survival is victory.
Writing solo without the help of his younger brother for the first time since INCEPTION (according to Chris he was too busy) Nolan has seemingly recognized his inability to draw empathetic characters and opts to sidestep the character notion almost entirely in favour of a seventy-six page experiment. The script eschews as much dialogue as possible and works like a well oiled machine, harkening back to the silent war film era, the IMAX film moves as a visual exercise as much as possible to play to his aesthetic strengths. An old pro and Nolan newcomer Mark Rylance leads the pack in the acting category managing to bring a whole lot to the screen with little on the page, whereas veteran Tom Hardy (Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, again here behind a mask) is capably expressive in his eyes. An old fashioned movie star role if there ever was one that has him flying high and looking cool.
Most of the soldiers on the beach are fresh-faced and for better and for worse indistinguishable from one another with the exact same hair styles and colour (reflecting Nolan’s typical monochromatic palette). To speak of the casting of internationally recognizable pop star Harry Styles who conflicts with the anonymous nature of the film, he feels like a studio mandated addition (you can’t just have no-names headlining a $150 million dollar studio film they would say). His slight miscasting and annoying performance is likely more a case of Nolan focusing on the bigger and better technical aspects of the film, since in interviews the director seems more indifferent to Styles’ presence than any other acting role of his that I’ve seen. The other big casualty comes with questionable character motivations and logic. When you don’t understand what or why a character seemingly does something, (I say seemingly because it is often hard to tell) even though you are closer to them than ever before it doesn’t make it any easier to understand, it just makes for a more frustrating picture.
With the beautifully broad canvas of shooting on 65mm IMAX cameras comes the caveat of too much noise. Only in an instance was I bothered by slightly tin eared audio delivered by the soundtrack. Either a mixing issue, a symptom of the famously noisy cameras or the score, I wondered the point of using the format for small expository scenes like the ones with Sir Kenneth Branagh and James D’Arcy’s stern back and forth. The rest of the time any possible audio hitch was drowned out (another recurring motif) by the relentlessly, slightly overdone ticking clock of Hans Zimmer’s score, synthesized by the director’s own pocketwatch (ego alert!). Capturing the chaos of war, a colossal military disaster with clarity and precision is a filmmaking paradox, a tricky tightrope the director isn’t always able to manage.
There are two scenes that encapsulate the bulk of my criticism here. The first is a crosscutting sequence (a Nolan staple) showing two soldiers’ race to carry a wounded man on a stretcher from the beach to a departing rescue boat. With the camera attached to the stretcher at a waist-high vantage point the movement is visceral and kinetic in its impact, while Hans Zimmer’s ticking clock score is everpresent to keep you engaged while you are bouncing between the two points. The ultimate effect is however lost on the audience as to how far apart these two figures actually are in terms of space. Its a mess, like war but as a consequence the magnetism of one of the memorable scenes feels lessened. A second scene in which we are told via expository dialogue rather than shown, takes place outside the safety perimeter. The audience is given no clue as to how far apart the characters actually have strolled from safety, only that danger surrounds them ‘at every turn’ to paraphrase the opening caption. It is here where Nolan has inspiringly managed to work his directorial shortcomings into a theme. The real enemy, traditional to Nolan films is never seen on-screen directly, allowing him to do what he does best: obfuscate and reveal one grand idea at a time, rather than shoot actual action (i.e. more than one thing happening on-screen) which he surprisingly does not do well. As one character remarks about reaching home “You can practically see it from here.” Only, the audience ironically doesn’t actually get to see it from their point of view. It’s all about optics. Unsurprising for an aesthetician.
Nolan’s greatest mistake or as others have pointed out, one of his most ingenious moves is hanging onto his signature fractured chronemic structure of storytelling. Seemingly without a narrative gimmick to supply the characters with or a strong enough theme to thread it through the film, the movie’s decision to weave three different plotlines over three different timelines feels oddly out of place. Only on occasion do we see actually see these narrative pieces work off each other in ways that benefit the audience; most times the effect is often muddled and a confusing mess (like War!) although once in the climax with satisfying clarity a seamless change is made. The now famous gimmick doesn’t work often enough though or on all three cyndrical plot lines for whatever dilation strategy Nolan was working on to payoff. If this as RT states is a director operating in full control of his craft, then I’d hate to see out of control. If survival is victory, then he is still treading water.
Continuum: -3 -2 -1 0 +1 +2 +3