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Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy.
Review by Simon Ramshaw.
Christopher Nolan has always been a director who operates without limits. His work is very frequently sketched upon an expansive canvas, and no matter how laudable his attempts to bring complex story structures to mainstream audiences are, he has never been a particularly economic storyteller.
Enter Dunkirk, a tightly-wound thriller less concerned with cerebral concepts than it is with nerve-jangling tension. It’s a film of clockwork-like efficiency, down to the point where much of the score is a ticking watch. It’s a film of few words and many actions, the very landscape of Dunkirk changing with every direct hit, every ill-fated ship coming and going. You could say it’s far similar to the physical, growling machine that is Mad Max: Fury Road than it is any of Nolan’s previous work.
All of this is a very welcome new direction from one of the world’s most popular directors, as he throws out most of what has bogged him down recently. It’s always been Nolan’s dialogue that has hobbled even his most ambitious films, and it’s ultimately what turned The Dark Knight Rises into a meme and what made Interstellar disappointingly akin to a weak M. Night Shyamalan film. Yet Dunkirk often goes minutes without a single word, and our protagonist (a solid turn from newcomer Fionn Whitehead) is so petrified that he barely utters a word for the entire duration of the film. It’s a restrained conceit that lets the action speak for itself: an admirable feature that is seldom seen in Nolan’s filmography.
The rest of the film has Nolan’s careful fingerprints all over it though. His signature Russian doll structure composed of various overlapping layers is very much present, focusing in on three different aspects of the conflict: on the beach, on the sea and in the air. The film’s major flaw arrives in this break-neck paced structure, as each section immediately gives itself an apparent timescale. Scaling down from one week to one day to one hour, Nolan structures his story to a T the moment he begins telling it, and it’s just an awful shame that none of it meets the criteria he’s set himself. The sense of inevitability Nolan flags up from the start only provides a distraction for the viewer. I particularly found myself obsessed with trying to piece together the intersecting narratives (which come together in an admittedly satisfying way), to little avail. Although Dunkirk clocks in as Nolan’s shortest film after his debut, Following, he has at long last operated to a tight timescale that shows off his greatest strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, his control over muscular action set-pieces is undeniably impressive, but on the other hand, the seams of his showy structure are more visible than ever.
But in the grand scheme of things, it’s only one misstep in a magnificently ambitious and exciting piece of work. Actors are but pawns in Nolan’s grand restaging of one of the modern world’s tipping points and don’t get an awful lot to work with, but everyone is reliably solid – with Mark Rylance in particular giving a boatload of subtle internal conflict to a seemingly cut-and-dry hero.
Far from Nolan’s most watertight work (that title still remains with his seminal blockbuster The Dark Knight) but an impressive improvement on the glaring contrivances of Interstellar, Dunkirk is a well-oiled machine of staggering visual precision and craftsman-like editing, only let down by its own self-imposed limitations. Exciting and passionate, but not as perfect as we all want Nolan to be.