In the cinema where I watched writer/director Christopher Nolan’s breathtakingly intense new film, the WWII action-drama Dunkirk, the sound was loud. I mean, loud. Utterly, staggeringly, face-meltingly loud. At one point, as Nolan whooshed planes above his characters’ heads for the nth-hundredth time, I wondered whether it might be unrealistically noisy: that is, whether war in real life was actually significantly quieter than the bone-perforating clamour blasting out of the speakers.
I left in a stupor. And I found myself returning to one the following day, when a friend completely threw me by asking the simple question of what I thought of Tom Hardy’s performance. Hardy co-stars as Farrier, a Spitfire pilot. But answering that question isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Hardy not only has to deal with the commotion around him, but the fact that his character is strapped into the aircraft’s oxygen system. This means that when he speaks, a Bane-like effect makes precise enunciation of syllables impossible. If that wasn’t enough, there’s the near-constant roar and thunder of Hans Zimmer’s abstract, electrifying score, relied upon by Nolan so intensely the film could have been billed as a Nolan/Zimmer co-production – and nobody would have batted an eyelid.
So what was Hardy like? Very good. I think. Given his tinny, machine-ified voice would have been recorded in post-production, and given the actor sat in a small plane for almost the entire running time (as he did in a car for 2013’s Locke) Hardy’s performance comprises a series of head movements: left and right, and, yes, for a bit of dramatic range, up and down. Again, tough one to judge.
“Nolan finds a different, non blood-splattered path, engaged more by consequences than processes of war.”
The film itself, however, is quite obviously going straight to the pool room. Nolan’s tenth – and best – feature is a rare example of a non-linear structure that dovetails between three alternate periods of time, without a trace of wit or self-consciousness about it (unlike the chopped-up Tarantino caper, for example, ostentatiously scrambling the jigsaw then putting the pieces together). Arrive late and you might not even notice the timelines are distinct, such is the fluidity of Nolan and the work of his Australian editor Lee Smith.
Farrier’s portion transpires over one hour. It is May 1940 and he is in the air while hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, such as Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles, a member of the boy band One Direction) are stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, hoping to evacuate. Their story takes place over a week. They are so close to England they can almost see it; thus, famously, fishing boats make a long journey to pick them up – including one captained by Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), whose story takes place over one day.
In recent decades, directors such as Steven Spielberg and Mel Gibson – through their films Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge – upped the stakes of cinematic war porn, with unbearably gruesome, guts-spilling, voyeuristic visions of fluid and limb-riddled stink and shit, leaving viewers appreciative of their showmanship but wary of the genre. Where do you go from there? As Terrence Malick did in 1998’s The Thin Red Line, Nolan finds a different, non blood-splattered path, engaged more by consequences than processes of war.
There are some startling sets and set pieces, the lion’s share of the running time taking place on the water and in the sky. Rylance (who won an Oscar last year for his performance in Bridge of Spies) is unforgettable as the fair dinkum Brit, resolved to help sans a sense of chivalry or histrionics; credit that as much to Rylance as Nolan’s writing and direction. There’s also Kenneth Branagh, as Commander Bolton: a performance almost entirely geographically relegated to a pier.
Dunkirk, however, is an ensemble piece, at least in terms of its actors. I say that because the film has two great performances: one from Hans Zimmer and the other from Nolan.
“Dunkirk is a film that evokes memories of New Hollywood – the period that, from 1967 to 1980, marks the last truly great movement in American cinema.”
The former’s startling contribution can be unpacked in detail elsewhere, with word counts more liberal than mine. The latter can be explained this way. Nolan (whose films include Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy and The Prestige) is one of few living, bona fide auteurs who have not just maintained, but grown their authorial style, as budgets and box office have spiralled to the heavens.
There’s a reason Edgar Wright, another auteur, in recent years bowed out of directing the superhero film Ant-Man: he knew the studio would force the creation of their movie, not his. Just as they did with filmmaker Patty Jenkins, who, following the excellence of her unflinching 2004 biodrama Monster, was forced to toe the multinational party line with Wonder Woman – a vision steamrolled by the machine, distinguished in areas (i.e. casting) that have little to do with a director’s authorship.
Nolan, like Stanley Kubrick before him, got the keys to the kingdom. This is the sort of name we should now be associating him with. In style, charge and temperament, and dismissal of hackneyed moth-eaten narratives pedalled by government and institution, Dunkirk is a film that evokes memories of New Hollywood – the period that, from 1967 to 1980, marks the last truly great movement in American cinema.
Zimmer’s score, while one of the film’s greatest assets, is also the source of my only criticism. It is so overwrought, so thickly and extensively applied, virtually every scene is pitched at a moment of near-crisis, the entire experience hanging in the nanosecond when the fuse has burned out but the explosion is yet to go off. That bang is rarely realised; the smoker’s tomorrow that never arrives.
On the other hand, reliance on the score is so unerring it gives Dunkirk a near experimental status. To play in this kind of sandpit, with a vision so utterly distinctive – that’s something worth celebrating. See it in the cinema, if you can, and come prepared. Because it’s loud. Really, really loud.