Dunkirk, the new film by Christopher Nolan, is…an experience, to say the least. A non-linear approach to one of the most interesting situations to come about in World War II, the film employs everything possible to keep the audience in it’s thrall.
Dunkirk very much reminds me of 12 Years a Slave, and not just because I’m sure the former hopes to achieve Oscar glory like the latter. It’s my opinion that both movies work better as experiences of an event/time period rather than specific stories within them. Solomon Northrup’s story in 12 Years felt so truncated, time wise, and at the end, when he had on a supremely grey wig, I felt like he had just been aged by the makeup department, not the timeline of the film. However, the power in his and the other slave’s experiences were palpable, leading to an experience unlike any other. Unlike that movie, in which McQueen’s masterful handling of every element made the film better, Nolan’s film can’t seem to get out of its way or push back against the cacophony of spectacle. Christopher Nolan’s story here is thin at best and the non linear presentation of it felt more like a ploy to drum up some emotional value. It works as a visual dazzler (I saw it in 70mm) and there are some gorgeous shots. But what good is the eye candy if you cannot present your emotional stakes in a way that’s compelling?
The story of the British and French being pinned at sea and relying on civilian boats to come save them sounds like a recipe for an emotionally swelling film. Nolan, like we’ve come to expect, eschews this for a more cerebral approach, which is welcome given he’s making a film in a genre that has seen enough emotionally baity material. But what Nolan failed to do in Dunkirk is make the various parts of his film sing in harmony. The emotional moments in the film are undercut not by a heartless director, but by a sound mix so loud and muffled when it should not be. That loud sound mix in turn allows you to feel as shellshocked as the soldiers, but it also breaks your concentration from trying to dig into the meat of the story. It’s a vicious cycle and Nolan is too seasoned a filmmaker to continue to have these troubles pop up with his sound mix. Hans Zimmer‘s overbearing tunes also distract from the film, turning what should have been a welcome under two hour film into more of a chore to sit through than was welcome.
It’s too bad, because Nolan does manage to wring some interesting, I won’t say great, but interesting, performances from his actors. I was struck by how he let the naturalism play out, there are many stretches where not a word or very few words are uttered, and his cast seemed up to the task. Though they felt like they came out of a conveyor belt of white dudes, the trio of Aneurin Barnard, Fionn Whitehead, and Harry Styles, make for a compelling group of soldiers. Whitehead, in particular, has to do a ton of work without saying anything and he did a great job. Of the actors, the triumvirate of Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan, proved to have the most emotionally interesting story, but were often undercut by the non linear narrative and in some crucial moments, the sound. And it’s too bad because Nolan had some good material with this film, but seemed to get overwhelmed by the amount of pure cinema at his fingertips and ended up capsizing the ship that was his film Dunkirk.