Dunkirk: The redefining mastery of Christopher Nolan

Jess Ennis /
Jul 24, 2017 / Film & TV

In nine war movies out of every ten, the only way they’ve learnt to communicate the horrors of war is by placing a protagonist to act as a vessel of sorts. After all, if they cry, if we see their fear, then we feel it too, right?

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has just told us that this is no longer the case. Instead, what he’s created is a visual cacophony of colour, chaos, and camaraderie – and it’s almost entirely devoid of personal development.

To be perfectly honest, I’d never even considered it possible that you could have characters – characters whose names I don’t even remember, less than a day later – who are, for all intents and purposes, scratching the surface of humanity, and yet see them take form so subtly and with such nuance. The film is sparse on dialogue, in a way that reminds me somewhat of certain stints in Insomnia, and much of the exposition is delivered through long, almost boundless shots. There are quiet, ordinary moments, interspersed with violent, tense overtures. Dunkirk is a masterpiece, and it might be one of the closest things to experiential art I’ve ever seen on screen.

Once you dig a little deeper, Nolan’s relative blank canvas character-wise is a very smart move. If the classic protagonist with his backstory of torment and suffering is supposed to be the everyman, the audience’s way into the narrative, then surely, it makes more sense to make them as approachable as possible? Nolan’s main characters, in particular the young men stranded on Dunkirk beach, strike the balance perfectly between having minds of their own and keep enough of them missing for you to have to fill it in without even realising that you’re doing it. It’s a taught and impressive line walked by all of the actors, from Chief-Thespian-in-Charge Kenneth Branagh to newcomer, and the closest we come to a main actor, Fionn Whitehead. They provide performances that are utterly stylised in their plainness, provocative in their total normality.

That’s sort of the crux of the entire film – there’s no Brad Pitt in Fury-esque emotional pyrotechnics. The whole film feels like a raw nerve, like the strange twang of an off-key violin string. It’s film that grinds your teeth, and makes your skin feel like you shouldn’t be in it. It’s utterly, completely remarkable.

In IMAX, too, it’s like live theatre. From Nolan’s signature upside-down shots to the sounds of Luftwaffe droning closer and closer, and Hans Zimmer’s ticking time bomb of a score that never explodes, the entire piece is orchestrated to sit like a bubble at the bottom of your throat. This is not a war movie that feeds on sentimentality. This a war movie that does exactly what it should – it presses down on your windpipe, just enough cut off some airflow, but never enough to kill you. The moments of destruction, of fire, of death on an enormous scale are never shocks, because the tension isn’t alleviated in the first place. Nolan’s produced the most evocative war film I’ve ever seen because it’s built on tone.

Dunkirk also feels like a complete departure for Nolan plot-wise. Gone are the twists and turns of Inception, and in their place are the strands of three intertwining passages of time – ground, sea, and air. Within them, the narratives are entirely straightforward, but Nolan’s employment of his signature non-linearity meshes them together in a way that compounds time and, with it, action. Traumas become entangled, paths cross, even if they’re never fully recognised. Though the narrative structure is as smart as you’ve come to expect from Nolan, it’s simple and effective.

It feels strange to describe a film continually in paradoxes, but that’s really what this film is. It’s still hard, twenty-four hours later, to tell you honestly how this film made me feel. It was probably the most absorbing, spellbinding, and, in places, horrific film I’ve ever seen. By the time the credits rolled, I realised I’d been breathing shallow for two hours, and crying for over twenty minutes, and I couldn’t even identify when either had started.

This is a blockbuster with the artistry of a live exhibition. It’s the work of an established director that feels entirely new in its attitude to audience manipulation. It’s a war movie, but it’s so, so much more.

Dunkirk: The redefining mastery of Christopher Nolan

Get Volume #19 here.

Words by Jess Ennis

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