Seems like Chris Nolan been listening to his critics. They say he struggles to build compelling and emotionally nuanced characters, he goes and creates a film without any. They say that his plots are tightly wound but don’t hold up under scrutiny, Dunkirk is virtually plotless. They say he mixes dialogue waaaaaaaaay too fucking low in the edit and he makes a whole film where his approach actually make sense. If it weren’t for the fact that this a full on onslaught of an action film it’d probably be unrecognisable.
It all works out for the better though, the film great, it’s a tight 100 minutes of propulsive force, kicking its players up, down and around the British Channel. Even in that time it still manages to feel like an epic, it’s bruising. The film makes up for all the ruthless cuts it makes to the current popular style of narrative cinema by just replacing them with other things it’s perfect misdirection.
First, instead of characters it has actors. I know that sound like a reductive thing to say, but when three of the most crucial and important leads are ‘man in plane’, ‘man on boat’ and ‘man on pier’ you damn well best get them played by Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Ken Branagh. Hardy’s work is the most immediately impressive, the man is given nothing, he dogfights and checks the fuel levels in the tank, most of the time he’s got an oxygen mask over half of his face and aviator goggles over the other. And still, and still he’s this perfect, courageous superman, king of the skies and our hearts.
Now the film wisely avoids clear deliberate structure to the events unfolding, I mean, it’s a mass evacuation the troops on the beach are being actively slaughtered by the overhead planes, the only safe place for ships to make land is in range of the enemy artillery, everything about this sucks and is bad. So for our heroes on the beach, nothing can make sense. If it does then it’s gonna end up being completely at odds with the experience it’s trying to recreate. In the absence of this traditional structure then, Nolan adapts the structure of time.
The film is told as three parallel stories: one following men on the land, one on the sea and one in the air. Titles at the open tell us the first story is happening over a couple of days; the second over the course of a single day; and the third only an hour. This then allows the film to play us the same events, altering our perspective, teasing us with the information it provides that we may glimpse into the future or recontextualise the events of the past.
Not that it helps any, with Dunkirk Nolan seems content for the first time to observe. As a filmmaker he’s always wanted his films to probe, to investigate, to understand. It’s a good impulse, but one that has the tendency to lead him astray, his film’s mysteries being ones that aren’t that compelling when exposed to the light of day. Here he challenges his audience with incomprehension, throughout you’re never going to see an Axis soldier, you’re never going to leave the incredibly limited perspectives of the leads. There’s no planning or strategy or rest, there’s only the moment, and how to exist within it.
Think now on the casting of the three young troops who we follow, the very capable and engaging Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Aneurin Barnard. Three interchangeable, identically-dressed, floppy-haired white boys (y’all make up your own mind there), it would have been so easy to get one of them to dye it. But that’s not the point, the film wants these guys to be one, it allows it to expand and contract, their horror being both personal and global. They represent every scared troop on that beach, but when it needs to they are able to represent only themselves, when pictured in single they can be a dogged lone survivor, together they are the power of fraternity.
It might feel tiresome, following around a walking construct of ideas but the script and the actors know how much to give, think about Tommy, Fionn Whitehead’s character interrupted at the beginning of the film as he about to take a shit, then hounded continually. It’s vulnerable enough, and human for you to get this character from the start.
Maybe in another world it would be weaker, if the action, if the bombast and announcement of itself don’t ring so true. It’s Nolan. I’m sure he used a lot of real boats. The credits listed the pilots of the actual authentic Spitfires that we see flying about. He probably flooded people and blew things up and did it all very visceral and very real and it’s all very nice. But the way Hoyte van Hoytema shoots them. The way Lee Smith edits. The way that all the sound folks make it sounds is nothing short of perfect.
Like it’s so good, and my screen weren’t particularly big, certainly wasn’t anywhere near what you’d be getting with that fancy IMAX but the quality and purpose of what it throws up there is something else. Swinging from something terrifying and real, to moments poetic expressionistic, and then pure boys own fantasy heroism. There something about how these things composed quick step from sloppy to beautiful that it feel for the first time that Nolan actually paying attention to the meaning contained in the images he creating.
Dunkirk was a lot of things, a massive tragedy, a massive success, this moment of heroism and hopelessness. Maybe that’s why Nolan don’t do characters so well, because he’s engaged on this level that so grand and sweeping his version of trauma is one that must extend to cover a battlefield, that why it go all wonky when it’s forced down into a single person. Dude maybe just feels it all and by discarding the personal he’s finally found a canvas big enough to paint it all on.
Dunkirk is currently screening in UK cinemas