Friday, 21 July 2017

Dunkirk

To coincide with the release of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan curated a season of films at the BFI which influenced his WWII carnival of trauma. "Our season explores the mechanics and uses of suspense to modulate an audience's response to narrative," Nolan explained, and while he might have sounded like some kind of emotion-curious automaton, that declaration of intent - alongside the films he chose - reveals much about Dunkirk's provenance and objectives. Speed's 'Die Hard in a lift / on a bus / on a train' mission statement, for example, can be transposed to Dunkirk's 'Die Hard on the beach / in the sea / in the air' approach; the visual storytelling of silent classics Greed and Sunrise is a key tool in Nolan's dialogue-light, action-heavy movie, and the impact of the climactic plane crash in Hitchcock's tremendous Foreign Correspondent is also blindingly apparent - although for different reasons, Nolan could just as easily have picked Hitch's Lifeboat.

But despite the umbilical connections to all these cinematic progenitors, Dunkirk is first and foremost very much its own thing: a unique, bold, experimental film which - while probably not quite Nolan's greatest achievement - could only have been made by someone with his clout and ambition. And given that, for me, Christopher Nolan's ambition often outstrips his storytelling abilities (unpopular opinion: Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are all loaded with promise but trip over their own narrative shoelaces), it's a welcome relief that this time he's crafted more of an experience than a story. Virtually ditching characterisation and traditional notions of narrative, Dunkirk is less a movie than an ordeal. And I mean that, for the most part, in a good way.
Opening with the title in that familiar Univers Bold font and the sound of the director's own pocket watch ticking away with relentless urgency, Dunkirk is immediately and obviously a Christopher Nolan film. Tick-tick-tick mutates violently into a deafening rat-a-tat as a troop of British soldiers ambling through the deserted streets of Dunkirk are fired on by unseen German snipers, and there's no safety net in the casting to let you know who will or won't survive the attack: all these young men are anonymously similar. Most of the lead characters don't even get named - only in the end credits do we find out that one of our protagonists is wryly named Tommy, for whom ze var is most definitely not over.

That opening scene sets the tone for the next hundred minutes: tension, disorientation, a hidden enemy and extremely loud noises are very much the order of the day. A disparate bunch of unknowns spend the next week desperately trying to get the fuck out of France and back home in one piece while Nolan amusingly forces Big Names to stay in one place and do very little: Spitfire pilot Tom Hardy barely leaves the confines of his cockpit-set close-up, Cillian Murphy shivers with PTSD, Mark Rylance is stuck at the wheel of his fishing boat and Ken Branagh stands on a pier looking stoic. Even Michael Caine is relegated to a voice cameo.
The lack of complex characters might draw criticism from some, but it's a deliberate choice. Dunkirk is about the experience of survival, and Nolan strips away everything that might get in the way of us feeling on edge for the duration of the film. There are no moments of Spielbergian melodrama, no chances to get to know anyone's tragic backstory and certainly no attempts to show that hey, those guys trying to kill our boys are just flipsides of the same coin, man. We never cut to bloated generals pushing model planes around a map in Whitehall and we never see a single German face. Nolan isn't interested in war as a complex investigation of humanity, where the best and worst aspects of mankind can be found in the unlikeliest of places; for his soldiers, war is an endless, merciless death machine to be escaped from as quickly as possible, whatever the cost.

It's odd, then, that Dunkirk remains a bloodless affair. Nolan's decision to focus on suspense rather than the flying limbs and guts of, say, Saving Private Ryan's visceral opening and closing scenes lend it an incongruous air of false safety at odds with the thick seam of authenticity running through the rest of the film. It's a minor quibble, but the odd splash of claret could have upped the stakes even further. Instead, in an effort to heighten the tension, Nolan allows Hans Zimmer the freedom to carpet bomb the film with his most ludicrous, histrionic and distracting score yet. Barely a scene goes by without screaming strings or electronically enhanced horns blasting out at comically overblown volume, wilfully overlooking the dramatic effect that a well-placed moment of silence or two can bring.

Fortunately, Nolan's eye for a shot more or less makes up for his cloth ears. There are images in Dunkirk of such aching wonder - especially if witnessed on the appropriately majestic scale of an IMAX screen - that blow the mind. Dogfights between the RAF and the Luftwaffe are reminiscent of George Lucas' best X-wing moments (ironically, since Lucas shoved footage of WWII films into Star Wars before aerial sequences were finished), the beaches of Dunkirk stretch off into infinite bleakness and the scale of everything is brain-boggling. Tiny figures of men dot the vast expanses of sand, ridiculously tiddly fishing boats pootle across miles of unforgiving English Channel to aid the rescue, and even those Spitfires and Messerschmitts find themselves almost lost against the beauty of a clear, bright sky. The idea that all this is somehow cosmically futile is expressed with elegant awe.
Nolan lays all this out in typically tangled fashion, cutting between the week-long experience of the stranded soldiers, the day-long mission of the "little ships" that stepped in when the Navy was found lacking, and the hour-long airborne skirmish with a deliberate disregard for temporal sense. It's a technique that boosts the tension, but on a first viewing it's also unnecessarily confusing for too long, distracting attention from the story while your brain tries to hop between timelines. And while I'm nitpicking, I have no idea what the mechanics of Dunkirk's ostensibly climactic moment were: Nolan spends most of the film avoiding cliché, but then inserts a late flourish of heroic action which is unexpectedly directorially bungled.

Nevertheless, Dunkirk is quite an achievement even by Christopher Nolan's standards. It's a commendably original, ruthlessly effective sensory assault that pushes mainstream cinema further than anything else has for a long time, and that's not to be underestimated. It's also subtly patriotic without being jingoistic, especially in its treatment of the ordinary folks back home who risked their lives sailing their rickety tugboats across the Channel to pick up complete strangers in dire need. The Dunkirk spirit soaks through every frame, and it's a timely reminder that if we're so desperate to get away from Europe then we're going to need every drop of it.

2 comments :

  1. Your right - Nolan's last 3 films before this were narrative messes! Intrigued to see this tho

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  2. Yes! So glad someone else picked up on the unnecessary timeline conceit! I found it really distracting and just not needed, but nearly every man and his dog seems to be talking about it in "genius" terms. Nolan's great but he doesn't half trip over his own tropes.

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