Christopher Nolan is a very fine filmmaker but one who more often that not leaves me cold. My favourite Nolan films are Insomnia, Memento and Batman Begins, the rest I feel are terribly overpraised but well made films. Whenever anyone asks me why I don’t like Nolan, I simply tell them that I believe that he’s a great director, but a terrible screenwriter. He’s all ideas, no emotion. Dunkirk (thankfully) is one of his shortest films and has a fantastic British cast including Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh. However, even with this pedigree the film didn’t do it for me. I’m aware I’m in the minority, but I just don’t think Dunkirk is good enough.
The Isle of Man, my home nation has a strong connection to the Dunkirk evacuation. Eight of the Isle of Man Steam Packet ships took part in the historic mission with the Mona’s Isle being the first ship to leave Dover for Dunkirk; four were sunk, three on one day with the loss of crew but the company ships rescued 24,699 British troops over the period of the evacuation.
I think the reason that this film doesn’t really work is because Nolan messes about with the chronology. Nolan has a love for making the narratives of his films unconventional. Memento was a film which played backwards and meant that the film was totally fresh and exciting. It turned an unexceptional story into an interesting one. Dunkirk was a terrible event but it was also a story of the courage, sacrifice and patriotism of ordinary people and needs to be told straight – it doesn’t benefit from being messed with. Nolan sets the three parts of the story, the beach, the rescue boats and the air force, over three timelines which move at different speeds. However, after a while, this seems like a pointless device. The week long narrative (which begins before the civilian vessels are activated) seems that it could take place over the course of two days. Nolan doesn’t make the day/night cycle clear and we don’t see any progression in the characters appearances or personalities. Also, when certain characters view events that we then see in first person, all tension is lost.
The characters are the main problem with this film. They are thin beyond belief. The performances for the most part are excellent, the actors natural personalities overcoming the poor writing. Tom Hardy is fine, despite having nothing to do or say. Mark Rylance is the BFG in a boat. Kenneth Branagh was my personal favourite as I felt he was so visually striking and engaging that he overcame the lack of material. It’s probably due to his skill as a stage actor, but he catches the eye wherever he is, despite having to deliver cornball dialogue like “Home….it’s so close….” a million times.
The three young (interchangeable) lead actors are uninspiring. Fionn Whitehead says nothing for most of the film, and unlike Branagh, he made no visual impact. It sounds petty to say that but when you aren’t saying anything, appearance is all you have. Aneurin Barnard doesn’t do anything. Harry Styles is horribly distracting; perhaps if he didn’t have any dialogue he would have been better but he is given the film’s uses of the f-word which seems to draw attention to the fact that he’s that kid from One Direction. It’s like Mick Jagger appearing in Downton Abbey playing a vicar. All you could see is Mick Jagger.
It also doesn’t help that the action is relentless and indistinct. Over two hundred of the seven hundred “little ships” were lost over the period of the evacuation but sadly the portrayal of this unceasing carnage becomes wearying. The characters are constantly in peril. And then they get out of it. All tension is lost after it happens for the fifth time in half an hour. Once that tension is gone, what do you have to enjoy? It’s certainly not scintillating dialogue. Hans Zimmer’s music would work a treat if I cared if anyone lived or died. But I didn’t. Apart from Ken Branagh, who seemed to spend most of the film reacting to things happening out at sea.
Overall, this film is critically acclaimed and I’m sure it will be a big box office success. Despite this I would ask you to challenge the preconception that Nolan can do no wrong. He’s not always made good films and he is certainly not a good screenwriter. You can enjoy someone’s work without overpraising every film they make. Dunkirk is not for me, but the direction is strong (despite Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography) and Nolan knows how to get decent performances from actors. Overall this film is not a disaster, but I don’t believe that it is the masterpiece everyone is calling it.
Dunkirk is in cinemas across the UK now. Image source: www.aceshowbiz.com