M Night Shyamalan painted himself so badly into a corner being the twist guy his career inevitably took several steps back when he moved away from it. What’s that got to do with Chris Nolan, apart from him being the most likely successor to the crown Shyamalan once coveted (that of the 21st century Steven Spielberg)?
Starting with “Memento” and culminating with “Inception” and “Interstellar”, the quality that made Nolan one of the best writer/directors we have (let alone one of the best directors) was how beautifully constructed his screen stories were. He’s always been fascinated with the portrayal of the passage of time, and the way we perceive time provided the whole narrative backbone of Inception, but each film has seen him get better at making movies that have a Swiss watch quality, where every scene, character and line of dialogue provides the framework to tell a multilayered story and not a single asset is wasted.
“Dunkirk” represents a step back from the ironclad narrative style he’s long been perfecting – it’s a simpler tale told in a more straightforward manner. There’s still a strong element of it playing with the passage of time (the three main story threads are introduced with onscreen chapter headings that tell us they take place over the course of a week, a day and an hour) and the three narratives shift and overlap as the movie unfolds, but compared to Nolan’s other work, such a chronological dance is child’s play.
In fact it might be telling that this is the first movie in awhile where his brother and usual collaborator Jonah isn’t credited on the screenplay. Maybe the other Nolan was the secret sauce in all those beautifully built, tightly wound scripts all along.
If those are the qualities you usually love about Chris Nolan movies, you might consider “Dunkirk” a lesser effort in his canon. Characters and their dialogue are kept to such a minimum it almost feels like almost everyone – from award winners Mark Rylance and Kenneth Brannagh to newcomers like Fionn Whitehead and pop heartthrob Harry Styles – could be swapped out for anyone else without really affecting the end result.
Because Nolan is more interested here in screen images than stars or grandiose speeches (some of those that have appeared in other movies like dialogue from Bane or the Joker or “Interstellar’s” manifestos promoting brave exploration might have likewise come from brother Jonah), so if you love his movies because of his faultless eye, “Dunkirk” will be just as rich an experience . What he’s done with the mental architecture of dream logic, the inside of a black hole and Gotham City, he does here with the desperate evacuation of hundreds of thousands of soldiers from a French beach in 1940.
Even if you’ve never been a fan you can’t deny Nolan knows how to stage and compose a shot. The very first scene of a group of English soldiers walking tensely through deserted streets with leaflets raining down from the sky (dropped by Luftwaffe planes, warning them that they’re surrounded) is up there with the best work of Kubrick, and the rest of the movie rolls out sequences and shots that are just as arresting very consistently.
In what must have been one of the biggest physical production undertakings of any Hollywood movie filmed last year, they shot on the actual Dunkirk beachfront and in the English channel where it all happened, amassing an incredible array of warplanes and ships. If you know anything about movies you’ll know there must be a lot of digital effects in it, but as usual in Nolan’s work, they’re absolutely invisible.
Like “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “Dunkirk” is one single action scene. From less than a minute in, when enemy rifles open fire on the small squad of English soldiers and they break into a run, the story of the evacuation is relentless. As Tommy’s (Fionn Whitehead) small group flees through the city and hidden snipers pick his comrades off around him, he scrambles over a rooftop and finds himself at the French lines only a block or so away from the beach. They call him through and he runs down the promenade to find lines of soldiers, piles of equipment and vehicles and dead bodies by what looks like the millions stretched in every direction.
Hurrying to a nearby sand dune to relieve himself, he sees another soldier taking provisions off a body he’s burying. Without a word Tommy and the stranger team up, taking advantage of the confusion of a strafing run by the enemy from above. They grab an injured soldier on a stretcher and rush towards the mole (pier) where the final large English warship is preparing to leave, knowing it’s their only chance to escape the impending slaughter.
But the ship is only for wounded and when they’re promptly kicked off, fate steps in when the ship is bombed. After deciding to hide in the moorings and piles underneath the mole, Tommy and his friend find themselves rescuing people out of the water after they’ve swum back to escape the sinking vessel, among them Alex (Styles), who joins their their mostly silent team effort to get away .
Meanwhile back in England, the Navy is requisitioning as many small civilian vessels as it can to cross the channel and pick up more soldiers – there are still hundreds of thousands left and if the Nazis sink just one large ship beside the mole the approach will be blocked . The only chance to get soldiers out is to pick a couple of dozen at a time up off the beach in small craft, and one is captioned by Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son and first mate (Tom Glynn-Carney) and young local boy George (Barry Keoghan).
And in the skies over the Channel, Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do battle with Messerschmidt fighters and bombers as they try to protect the ships in the water and the hordes of soldiers on the beach.
In all that activity and cross cutting between the three theatres of war, the script leaves two elements very much on the backburner that have been instrumental in Nolan’s past films – dialogue and character. While promoting the film, star Fionn Whitehead told reporters Nolan left he and his co-stars to come up with their own characters and that’s actually pretty telling – most experts on how to tell a story will tell you it’s about the characters but here they’re just ciphers to convey how tense the action is.
When you first emerge from the cinema you might wonder if that’s because a production this big just got away from Nolan – that he might have been so consumed with how he was going to show a huge battleship slowly turning over as it capsizes or how he was going to wrangle realistic air battles between 80-year-old planes that he forgot to put much depth into the script or the characters’ mouths.
But history proves he’s too good a director for that. It’s more likely he simple knew the plot and characters weren’t critical parts of telling this story. Despite being a huge, expensive and lovingly crafted production like his last three or four movies have been it’s a departure for Nolan narratively. You might appreciate him doing something different and the big, boisterous and beautiful imagery will carry you away, but if you’re expecting another example of a story that’s been tweaked and polished until it’s as tight as a guitar string, it won’t be your favourite Nolan.