Christopher Nolan has become something of an auteur for the masses over the last decade after his smash-hit The Dark Knight. He currently occupies a space few directors have ever been afforded, being allowed massive budgets of $100+ million while retaining tight control of his films, and to his credit he hasn’t just taken his paycheck and phoned it in but rather makes efforts to push the limits of cinema. Even better, audiences eat it up, exposing them to the work of someone who loves film and wants to push and expand people’s understanding of the possibilities it can achieve. This is something I respect and appreciate about Nolan as a writer and director, though his films have been a bit hit-and-miss as of late. While Dunkirk continues his aspiration for grander things, it falls short of the heights to which it hopes to soar.
Dunkirk follows the events of the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II, where the allied forces were pushed back to the coast of Normandy and surrounded by Germany, and the subsequent evacuation of the Allies across the English Channel. The gimmick here is that Nolan tells the story from three shifting perspectives – “the mole” (soldiers stranded on the beach waiting to go home), “the sea” (a civilian vessel sailing across the channel to rescue soldiers), and “the air” (an RAF pilot protecting vessels from the Luftwaffe) – with each perspective told over a different time interval (one week, one day, and one hour, respectively). As the film goes on, the overlapping timelines grow closer together until they converge on a central event.
The experience of time is a common theme in Nolan’s career and his favourite way to experiment with plot structure, most memorably realised in films like Memento, Inception, and Interstellar. Here, however, it really feels like nothing more than a gimmick. I genuinely can’t think of what Nolan’s aim was to accomplish with the bizarre time structure, as it adds virtually nothing to the film apart from a couple of moments of payoff and in fact detracts from what should be some of the film’s most intense and gut-wrenching scenes by revealing what’s going to happen and how it will end from the most passive and detached perspective first. It’s hard to get into specifics without spoiling the plot (I’ll let the film do that for me), but by the end I found the narrative structure more frustrating than compelling.
I suppose it doesn’t help that I ultimately felt only one of the plot threads was fully compelling and successful at what it attempted to do. The sequence of events in “the mole,” primarily involving three desperate soldiers played by Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard, and Harry Styles (yes, that Harry Styles), is a superb exploration of a kind of existential dread as the young men continually try and fail to escape the beach while death creeps closer and closer to their doorstep. That sense of dread is key, as every facet of the film (bar those other two timelines, which I’ll get to later) works toward cultivating it through ceaselessly rising fear and tension. Hans Zimmer‘s score employs the use of Shepard tones magnificently and endlessly has an ominous presence, and I can’t praise the sound design as a whole enough, with gunfire, screams, and the loud screech of approaching German planes, so potent that sent a shiver down my spine unlike anything since the first time I heard the shriek of a Nazgûl, constantly threatening to shatter every eardrum in the room. One of the best scenes involved several soldiers trapped in the hull of a ship while shots continually pierce the ship’s sides; the ricochet of the bullets made me feel as though I was trapped in there with them, my heart racing alongside theirs. It’s immersive, harrowing, and uncomfortable in all of the best ways, and is in its own right some of Nolan’s finest work.
However, I was a bit disappointed with the sea and air strands of the film. “The sea,” which follows a small civilian vessel crewed by Mark Rylance and two teenage boys as they answer the call to cross the channel and rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, picking up a shell-shocked Cillian Murphy along the way, is perfectly fine for the most part, if not as compelling and throttling as “the mole,” and it explores some interesting and heavy themes surrounding post-traumatic stress disorder. However, a lack of emotional intelligence (a recurring issue with Nolan) takes away from a few key segments, leaving it wooden and stiff. The issue seems to stem more from an aversion from exploring these heavy emotions rather than tackling them head on, which at the very least is a wise decision from Nolan to avoid altogether some of the pitfalls that crippled Interstellar, even if it still leaves the piece wanting. “The sea” also just doesn’t quite match up perfectly in tone with “the mole,” which in turn reduces the impact of certain set piece scenes. “The air” is even more egregious in its tonal dissonance with the rest of the film and is entirely extraneous. As much as I love Tom Hardy, I would have preferred it cut from the film altogether.
It probably sounds like I’m being very hard on Dunkirk or that I didn’t particularly care for it, and I don’t want to give that impression, at least not completely. Dunkirk is well worth the time and investment to see in the cinema, especially at a much shorter runtime (106 minutes) than usual for a Nolan film. It’s a technical marvel, featuring a stupendous sound design that I already praised paired with top drawer visual effects blending CGI and practical elements seamlessly onto a richly bleak colour palette of greys and tans that make the occasional oranges and blues pop out explosively. I love the ghastly nature, the fact that everything was staged so that I can’t even remember the name of a single character apart from one (yes, this is a positive), and how surreal and unsettling it all becomes. Even if he didn’t quite pull it off, I deeply admire Nolan’s attempts at capturing the full scope of the battle; if there’s any harshness in my critique, it’s because I want him to succeed. Hidden beneath the layers of excess in Dunkirk is a genuine masterpiece that unfortunately has to bear the burden of its author’s own misguided creative ambition.