Dunkirk: A Beautiful and Maddening Film.
Christopher Nolan’s interest in manipulating time through narrative structure has made him one of my favourite directors, and certainly one of the most intriguing directors working in Hollywood today.
Whether structuring a narrative backwards (Memento), through dream sequences (Inception), or through space travel (Interstellar), Nolan’s defining signature has become the non-linear storyline.
His new film, Dunkirk wears this signature proudly, as he depicts the incredible story of the Dunkirk evacuation, which saw the allied rescue of over 300,000 British, French, Canadian, and Belgian soldiers stranded on the beaches of Northern France.
In the film, Nolan tells the story using three separate timelines each represented by a different location (land, sea, and air). As each location is presented with a different passage of time (a week on land, a day at sea, and an hour in the air), the timelines continuously intersect with each other as the film goes on.
Dunkirk is a technical and visual masterpiece taking full advantage of the 65mm IMAX film stock used. Nolan’s cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema, beautifully captures the harrowing images of war, as he envelops his audience in a tense and chaotic state throughout.
The cinematography effectively transverses between the vast and isolating landscapes of the sea, and the more disorienting shots of enclosed spaces which feature soldiers escaping sinking ships.
As events in the film unfold, Nolan uses the film’s score (composed by long-time collaborator Hans Zimmer) to connect each strand of narrative, specifically through the use of a “ticking clock,” something common to land, sea, and air. The device further contributes to the frenzied pace of the film, and allows the narrative to be understood as a (mostly) intelligible and cohesive story.
Nolan’s decision to tackle the story of Dunkirk was a bit baffling to me, dating back to when he first announced his plans to direct the film in late 2015. In his most recent works he seemed fascinated in approaching stories with complex and intricate narrative filled with a sense of wonder, and sentimentality.
Interstellar deals with the concept of relative time and the relationship of a father and daughter, while Inception deals with the psychology of dreams, and various aspects of reality. These earlier works are romantic films rooted in character psychology, and told in unconventional ways using non-linear narratives.
While Dunkirk attempts to deal with sentiment at times (namely the playing of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” toward the end of the film), it seems to remain a psychologically detached film. In addition to the split narrative structure, the film is unconventional in that almost no exposition is given, and there is a significant lack of character development throughout.
Before I watched Dunkirk for the first time I tried to speculate what Nolan’s objective would be. I wondered if he would approach Dunkirk from a psychological perspective, and attempt something like Terrence Malik did in his war film, The Thin Red Line.
Of course Nolan chose a much different route, and at first, I was disappointed with what I saw on screen. Dunkirk seemed to lack the magic of his earlier work, and I was truly torn between whether I could accept the film as simply just a visual and technical achievement.
Despite the film being almost unanimously hailed as a masterpiece by critics, my feelings continued to be left unresolved for some time. It was not until I thought deeply about what the film’s objective was, that I was able to reach some closure.
Dunkirk is meant to capture the experience of real life, and illustrate how time moves in situations of peril. With almost no exposition or character development, we are afforded a new type of experience while watching the film, as we simply exist with each of the characters.
While our own perceptions of space and time are obscured by the split narrative, we experience onscreen events the same way each of the soldiers do. The way time moves in the film is meant to be disorienting and jarring, and Nolan uses the narrative structure to facilitate this.
As we explore specific moments in history at different times (on land, sea, and air), perhaps we do gain an insight into the true experience, and psychological impact of the events of Dunkirk.