Christopher Nolan’s not one to shy away from big topics or Biblical running times – so it’s no surprise that his latest tackles the most spectacular and in many ways successful retreat in British military history, but it is a surprise that it lasts a mere 107 minutes.
Dunkirk’s a bit like the last half hour of The Dark Knight drawn out to feature length: lean, focused, people- rather than CGI-driven, and edited to within an inch of its life as Hans Zimmer ratchets up the orchestra to overdrive on top. It’s quite a spectacle, the sight of our finest young action director paring things down to essentials, and if you’re not thrilled, then check your pulse.
Despite its leanness, Nolan can’t resist chucking in some time-bending play, much like Inception or Memento, and the decision to cover a week on the beach, a day on the sea, and an hour in the air, crisscrossing between them, is either foolhardy or impressively ambitious, depending on your perspective. I think it’s a little of both – the film demonstrates how time appears mutable, lengthening or shortening according to where you are. In combat, an hour of fighting inside a cockpit might feel like a day, a day on a boat journeying into a warzone might feel like a week, a week of waiting onshore to be blown up or rescued might feel like a lifetime. But the jarring cuts from day to night and back again that the film undergoes thanks to its timehopping structure sometimes has the effect of distancing from the action, with thoughts leading to the construction of the film rather than the immediate peril of the men.
The film works best as a simple story of survival. The dialogue is clunky when it comes, which is not often, and when it does we long for them to shut up and carry on with the act of surviving. So we really do hope that the soldiers make it back home, of course we do, but the script doesn’t give any impression of the men’s inner lives. Who is Harry Styles playing? Tom Hardy? Kenneth Branagh? They could be anyone, they could be cardboard cutouts, and when they speak that becomes apparent.
Nolan’s been interested in characters before – particularly the Joker, whose richness exposes the shallowness of all other comic book villains – but they’ve always come second to the relentless narrative drive of his films, and perhaps third to the pondering of big themes such as the nature of time, space and memory. Dunkirk abandons the formulating of characters altogether, and can be accused of a certain coldness. It only really displays emotion via a few tears from Kenneth Branagh, and at the end when it turns towards Spielbergian propaganda with a rendition of the famous ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches…’ speech accompanying the homecoming of survivors.
Yes, I’m aware that the lack of character development is deliberate, a rejection of the cheesy back stories that bog down so many war films. But I think the interchangeability of these men is a mistake, and that a little more effort spent colouring them in could have made for a much more memorable film. Tom Hardy in particular is wasted, playing a pilot whose performance mostly takes place behind a mask and in silence. Hardy’s an outstanding actor, and can do so much when given free rein. But here he’s only required to blink and move his hands a bit, which is a great pity, a really great pity.
Obvious flaws aside, it can’t be denied that this is an impressive film. Some of the action scenes are overwhelmingly visceral – point-of-view shots of planes being shot down are so close to the total immersion of video games that I almost had the urge to press ‘R2’ at the screen. But I can’t quite buy the argument that this film is a modern classic. I don’t agree that Nolan ‘eschews war porn’ in Dunkirk, not like Kubrick in Paths of Glory, because the way he films combat is so obviously ecstatic (although it’s stately, and at least you can’t sense Nolan jacking off by the side of the camera, like you could Mel Gibson with the dreadful Hacksaw Ridge).
Which is not to diminish either Nolan’s achievement or that of the British in Dunkirk: both are fairly wondrous success stories.
I salute it.