Christopher Nolan is a writer/director who is not new to large scale film-making. With films such as the Dark Knight trilogy, Inception and most recently Interstellar, Nolan has cemented himself as a Director who is able to transcend expectations of what blockbuster cinema is, providing audiences the world over with accessible big budget spectacle whilst still maintaining his arthouse sensibilities for experimentation in both storytelling and unique visual imagery. With Dunkirk, an account of real life events during the Second World War in which 400,000 men were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting retreat back to England, one may expect there to be less room for experimentation or some of Nolan’s more mind-bending narrative devices. However, Nolan’s tenth feature film follows his tradition of walking this tight-rope, giving audiences an enthralling account of real events whilst also setting itself apart from World War Two films that have preceded it.
The film boasts a strong cast of actors, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Brannagh, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance, alongside fresh faces to cinema Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney and Harry Styles. All actors give strong performances not through showing a wide range of emotions or making themselves the most important thing in the frame. This is well and truly an ensemble cast of actors giving very nuanced performances that perfectly serve the story and make it a much more personal and realistic approach to an historic event in British history. There is no “stand out” performance in Dunkirk, as no one actor in this film is more important than the source material, which is no criticism to the actors themselves, but in fact a real testament to their ability of creating believable people in an incredible situation.
Visually this film stands as one of Nolan’s strongest also. With cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema with whom Nolan previously worked on Interstellar, the pair have created such striking and bold imagery, with a gorgeous colour palette in which each frame feels as though it could be scene as a piece of art. The film was shot on 65mm film stock, the largest film format that there is and a format which has only been used a handful of times in recent years, perhaps most recently on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Nolan like Tarantino is a big supporter of film and creating the most beautiful quality image there is, so to see such depth and love go into a film of this size is a great win for cinema. The visuals of this film are particularly important as it is what is doing most of the storytelling. Dialogue is minimal in this film and very direct, what moves the narrative along is where the camera is framed and the expressions on the characters faces, telling us everything we need to no about the horror of the situation and the importance of the evacuation. It is a film of such high craft that could otherwise have been made into something of a generic World War Two film.
This is important, as Nolan’s films previously have always bucked convention, instead providing audiences with unique worlds and narrative devices not typically found in large scale blockbusters. Going into Dunkirk I was curious as to whether this would be a more straight forward film for Nolan, and in many ways it is. It is more straight forward in the sense that this is Nolan’s first film based on true events, so there is less room for the mind-bending narrative devices of Memento, the heightened action of the Dark Knight Trilogy or the surrealist imagery of Inception. What prevents this film from being “another World War Two” movie however is that Nolan clearly does not want to just present us with something we have seen before.
Like previous films of his, Dunkirk does employ a non-linear narrative which keeps us as an audience engaged in following the unique structure. The non-linearity of the structure challenges audience perceptions whilst also creating a disorienting sensation perhaps trying to emulate how one would feel in a hopeless situation like this. What also sets this film apart from others of the genre is that this really is not a typical war film. There is no “men on a mission into war” to be found in Dunkirk, no “hero” for us to latch on to. This film is about a retreat, with much of the conflict and disorientation coming from within the people trying to get back to England, desperate to survive. It does not fall into the pit of sentimentality except perhaps for the ending of the film, however this is still realistic rather than sentimentality for the sake of it.
I believe that with Dunkirk Christopher Nolan has created one of his strongest films, perhaps with further viewings maybe even his best. He’s given audiences a true story of big budget spectacle whilst still retaining his artistic and creative vision, something which truly sets him apart as one of the most interesting filmmakers working today.