By Noel Vera
Directed by Christopher Nolan
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S latest takes on for the first time an actual historical event, massive in scale and complex in nature — the mass exodus of over 300,000 soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, arguably the greatest retreat (some might prefer the term “escape”) in history.
It’s not exactly Nolan’s cup of tea; he usually takes on small-scale intricately woven narratives with generous doses of genre tropes, either science fiction (Interstellar) or thriller noir (Inception, Memento). A true event one would think would resist such treatment; you’d want the audience to know what’s going on where and why. So what does Nolan do?
Why, come up with three or four narratives, intricately woven together, with a generous dose of genre tropes (the thriller and war picture, the latter further subdivided into sinking-ship melodrama and aerial dogfights). Love him or hate him you have to respect Nolan’s consistency.
The movie’s difficult to follow especially on first viewing; it jumps about with only a handful of inter-titles to explain where and when you are, then drops them as the four narratives occurring in three time periods start merging together.
He’s obviously in love with both the 70-mm screen and all the big toys that came with the Second World War, and with this particular chapter of the war: the big destroyers, the high-flung Spitfires and Messerschmitts; the moles standing unperturbed above relentlessly crashing waves. The artillery, the rifle fire, the scream and thud of bombs, the heartstopping bang of a torpedo slamming into a ship’s hull while you sit inside, eating jam on toast.
I’ve always faulted Nolan for failing to film action sequences properly. He seems to want to cut up the action into little chunks (like his narratives) and assemble them in near-incomprehensible shapes; unlike his narratives (sometimes just like his narratives) he fails at the “near-incomprehensible” bit and is just incoherent, a jumble of images badly thrown together.
Nolan’s gotten considerably better. The sequences here build slowly, the action is more or less shot and edited coherently — presumably because he’s playing a larger game mixing sequences from different narratives and times together. He doesn’t want to hand over poorly assembled pieces when the larger puzzle is so much more difficult to construct in the viewer’s mind.
The result is… ambitious certainly; Nolan isn’t one for taking the easier quieter route. He’s not known for subtlety or a sense of humor either.
Is this Nolan’s best work? Why not? He’s taken on something he’s never done before (Large-scale historical drama, specifically World War 2), avoided one major flaw he’s been accused of in the past (incoherent individual action sequences) and is still attempting something new — or at least something most mainstream directors would prefer to avoid (war sequences without the benefit of much characterization or conventional drama).
Would I consider this a great war movie? It’s more of a great war diorama, the whole theater of action seen in the round and in detail, with little figures and equipment arrayed both for and against accordingly, with little visible CGI (I love him for that, not to mention insisting on filming on 70-mm film as opposed to digital; even projected digitally on a regular screen the images are impressive). Some of the little figurines emote convincingly, even poignantly — Mark Rylance’s brave little mariner chugging away in his little boat; Kenneth Branagh’s pier master hovering fretfully over his massive pier; Tom Hardy’s heroic RAF pilot (even if Hardy’s massive head was mostly covered by his oxygen mask for most of the picture) sitting in his endlessly gliding Spitfire.
Kubrick has also been accused of pushing figurines across massive landscapes, though in his early Paths of Glory there was enough conventional drama to grant said figurines humanity (plus a purely emotional coda to give them a proper, even powerful, send-off). Barry Lyndon demonstrates what Kubrick was really capable of: leisurely told understated narratives that almost despite themselves allow us to feel for the scurrying little ants — then and only then do you belatedly realize (as Kubrick probably intended) that setup and angle were carefully chosen, that the ant imagery is an illusion meant to be dispelled quietly at the last minute, that these are living breathing human beings you’ve been observing with such detachment all along.
Quite an achievement considering Kubrick’s film was adapted from a 19th century novel, that Thackeray’s voice (Redmond Barry, braggart and all-around rogue) differs considerably from the film’s (Michael Horden as Narrator) — is considerably muted to the point of functioning as an onscreen drone. You come out of both films exhausted emotionally and physically: both are long, are beautifully crafted. But Kubrick builds on the intensity of his narrative with a slow magisterial grace, with the occasional setpiece here there (a duel with pistols; a massive battle between French German and British forces) towards a memorable climax.
Nolan by way of comparison starts quiet enough — Tony (Fionn Whitehead) is looking around for a place to take a dump (he finishes his business so quietly and unfussily you are half-convinced he laid a well-lubricated egg) but can’t wait longer than five minutes before unleashing a volley above poor Tony’s head. The movie jerks along: boredom then BANG (shots fired) then boredom then BOOM BOOM BOOM (bombs drop) then boredom then WHAM (torpedo hits) — you get the idea.
Which is better? Conventional narrative storytelling has the advantage of accumulating momentum emotion drama; Nolan’s patchwork series of vignettes harkens back to D.W. Griffith’s fourway climax in Intolerance: overwhelming, but not in an emotional way. Applause to Nolan in his attempt to one-up Kubrick; brave attempt, better luck next time. If you’re watching bring a pair of earplugs: the sound mix is loud.
MTRCB Rating: PG