David Cox’s no doubt controversial take on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has spurred me to writing, and not, as you might think, to leap to the film’s defence.
I saw Dunkirk on Saturday morning; not in IMAX, as Nolan would make everyone if he could legally do so, but at my local cinema, on a normal screen.
I’d heard similar things to Cox: that Nolan had crafted a perfect war film, a stark and bleak story of suspense and survival. But I, too, left the cinema feeling wholly underwhelmed.
We had a protracted discussion in my studio yesterday about Interstellar and confection. I avoided discussing Dunkirk too much so not to ruin my students’ gut reactions, which I consider just as good a mark of a film’s impact as any well-crafted review. But in Interstellar, as in much of Nolan’s recent work, the score is solely responsible for imbuing any meaning to the image. We watched a 15-minute clip where the protagonist leaves his family and launches into space. Apart from the opening tears and family stuff, the rest of the scene is highly procedural, with McConnaughey, Hathaway, Bentley et al floating about the spaceship, flicking switches and checking systems. There are moments of banter, but nothing hugely affecting. This scene is ‘confected’ (an excellent word used by my co-teacher) to feel like a massively emotional scene, purely by the score. Humorous lines are given a push by lilting string phrases. Little barbs about home are sent into the realm of epic pathos by a booming bass note. It just feels entirely artificial and wrong (comparisons were made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pulls off suspense, emotion, awe much more effectively).
Dunkirk is equally confected, but in a very different way. Cox mentions the lack of character development and backstory. When I read the early reviews, I came down on Nolan’s side, arguing naively that perhaps there is room for both well-developed character war films and those that are more visceral. After seeing the film, though, I can’t help but agree with those critics. I would add a couple more criticisms, though.
Compared to the over-exposition of previous Nolan stuff, this film has virtually no dialogue. What dialogue is there is mumbled, or hastily whispered from cover. The dialogue does nothing to explain the characters’ decisions or motivations (exposition), nor does it give a more rounded insight into the characters’ personalities (abstraction/expression). The words just sort of sit there as awkward observations about the characters’ surroundings that, arguably, with the film being shot in IMAX, the audience could probably see and figure out for themselves.
The supposedly ever-present threat from the unnamed enemy comes off as wholly artificial. The enemy is basically represented by a Shepard tone and, because Nolan doesn’t want you to forget that you’re under threat, the Shepard tone never ends. The result is a suspense that is driven not by empathy, or by a feeling of anticipation or fear, but by sheer audience discomfort in the cinema.
The third and final criticism is that this is a blinkered story. The protagonist, if there is one, is played by Fionn Whitehead, who does an admirable job of injecting some affect into the lifeless husk with which the audience is meant to sympathise. If you are going to focus on someone, though, if the audience is indeed meant to feel what a protagonist is feeling, we need something more than an innocent-looking face. At least for Whitehead’s character — Bobby? Jimmy? What gratingly archetypal British name did they give him in the credits? — the audience needs some hint of a story of home, a family or partner waiting for him, loving parents. We get more of that for the sailor’s son, who dies purely accidentally (‘He always wanted to be in the paper’), than we do for the protagonist. We also get next to no sense of the scale of the evacuation, nor of the role that non-British countries played, both in terms of being evacuated and off fighting off the German threat. Apart from two French soldiers holding the line at the beginning, one blink-and-you-miss-him-Dutchman, and the other French soldier pretending to be British, you wouldn’t know that there were not only British, French, and Dutch troops at Dunkirk, but also Canadians, Poles, and Belgians.
330,000 people made it off that beach. That’s the story of Dunkirk. I’m all for visceral cinematic experiences, for switching off my own life in favour of immersion in a story or experience. But in the case of Dunkirk, to ignore the scale of what may well have become ‘the greatest military disaster in our long history’ — to steal Churchill’s words — does something of a disservice to everyone, of all nations, both home and abroad, who somehow got most of those men and women home. To do that, we need to get to know the people on a level greater than pure affect. We also need to see how great, how enormous, this military achievement was. Somehow Nolan, of all people, failed on both counts.