By Tony Inglis
Christopher Nolan is obsessed with time.
In Memento, time is used to help us, the audience, relate to and experience the confusion of Guy Pearce’s bereaved amnesiac. In The Dark Knight Rises, time ticks away on a weapon of mass destruction. In Inception, time is a tool to be stretched and manipulated as we burrow deep into a dreamy subconscious. Time, in Interstellar, is elongated and non-linear, opening new worlds and new galaxies. Its mastery over that film’s characters is both awe-inspiring and cruel.
In the British director’s new, astonishing masterpiece, Dunkirk, time is both ever present and, at once, totally redundant. In this case, Nolan uses time to completely disorientate the viewer, just as the soldiers, pilots and officers on the beaches of the eponymous French coastal town are bewildered and frightened at constant air raids and the threat of the enemy creeping ever closer to the dunes that act as a perimeter while the British forces make their retreat home, just across the Channel.
Nolan has spoken of his fondness for the extraordinary story of Dunkirk – a story that he describes as such despite it being a tale neither of victory nor defeat. This is Nolan’s best work yet, and it is clear that his disappointment that there was yet to be a definitive cinematic retelling of the events at Dunkirk has spurred on his passion to construct such a statement.
The film is split into three strands – generally, land, sea and air – but these threads are, typically for a Nolan film, not told in a linear fashion. The effect this creates can be very unnerving; not knowing where or at what point you are in the world of the movie, with the horror and the tension of war being the only constant.
As discussed, time, its passage, and the affect and control it has over people, is a trope that Nolan returns to in his work again and again. However, perhaps the most surprising thing about Dunkirk, is how atypical to Nolan’s previous works it is. Plot and dialogue, expository or otherwise, is absent or, at least, unimportant.
Movies like The Dark Knight Rises, The Prestige and Inception are always propelled forward by some mystery, twist or coming revelation. Dunkirk instead eschews plot and narrative in favour of an immersive, sensory experience. The forward motion comes from the broiling tension, the visceral action and a heavy blanket of fear. By casting relative unknowns and newcomers, such as Fionn Whitehead, around whom much of the story takes place, we are plunged deep into the cold waters and dangerous dogfights with him and his comrades, witnessing each eardrum shattering bullet shot and head splitting artillery fire.
Nolan has used his craft here not to create a blockbuster superhero adventure or a sprawling sci-fi epic, but an experimental film that never lets up. Across its 106 minutes, the hypertension is constantly tightening, offering little climax or relief but continually, seemingly forever, increasing. I was overwhelmed from start to finish in a way I cannot say I have been by many other films in recent memory. Nolan moves from the vast expanses we are used to from his movies, to claustrophobic spaces and situations filled with peril.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is key in creating this atmosphere. Zimmer’s soundtracks can sometimes be criticised for being too bombastic but Dunkirk’s score is vital in contrasting and accompanying the bombs that are being dropped on the piers and pontoons of Dunkirk beach. The strings and horns mimic the diving whistle of air force planes, and there seems to be the clicking of a stopwatch that never ceases. At points, especially noticeable in a scene involving a packed to capacity ship under attack, the orchestral hits seem to back-mask and reverse. Not only does this add to the panic, but it also plays into the looming figure of time – just when we think we can relax, time goes into overdrive and turns everything upside down again. Nolan and Zimmer collaborated so that the rhythm and pitch of the music followed the heightening tension of the film. It majestically creates the feeling of a lever attached to a great weight being wound and wound but never snapping. The sequencing of the film acts in the same way.
Of course, the picture itself is one of crystalline beauty, thanks to director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, and it shows off the scale being utilised here in all its enormity. Nolan once again proves that, despite the pressure of thousands of extras, hulking, expensive IMAX cameras and millions of dollars of studio money, he can create films painted on vast canvasses that are intelligent and challenging and unique.
He is backed up by understated but impressive performances. There are no powerhouse scene stealers, like Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight, or David Bowie’s Nikola Tesla from The Prestige. The acting hits in smaller ways: Kenneth Branagh’s subdued but emotive release at seeing the small British boats arrive to help with the evacuation; Mark Rylance’s stoic will to help as many British soldiers as possible; Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked shivering soldier; and Tom Hardy’s eyes are working overtime. One Direction’s Harry Styles is here too, and he’s fine. Dialogue is not that important an aspect of the film, and so there is little for him to be found out on.
With Dunkirk, Nolan has achieved the statement that he set out to create. Dunkirk vividly reimagines the experience for viewers of what happened on those beaches. It is proud to be British too: patriotic but never jingoistic, a story of this island with universal themes.