Nolan In-Review: Dunkirk

Nolan’s most recent outings to cinemas was one that sadly missed the mark for me. The prospect of the man that took on Batman, space, the mind, and even magic, suddenly turning his attention to World War Two was intriguing to say the least. However, my curiosity was met with an uneasy sense of disappointment.

I say uneasy, because much like upon my initial viewing of Interstellar, I felt as if I missed out on an inside joke. Critics were praising it left right and centre for its editing, soundtrack, and atmosphere, but I sat firmly in my seat, never truly transporting to those desolate beaches. Yet despite my disappointment, I was excited to see if my opinion had changed when I re-watched it a few years after its release. But no. The unquenched sense of dissatisfaction remained, while curiously that intrigue also stuck around.

Unpacking my torn responses to this film, I believe there is a lot to like about Dunkirk. Much like Interstellar, Nolan is exploring himself as a filmmaker, as he further diversifies his filmography. What is the same is Nolan once again tries to bring his spin to something we already know and love. Manipulating time over its week, day, and hour timelines and applying that to a World War film gives it a new angle in the thoroughly explored genre.

Often a deft hand with dialogue, Nolan delivers some of his best screenwriting, by saying nothing at all. Fionn Whitehead and his muted escapees barely utter words to each other until later in the film, yet their silence draws you in, as they sit in despair and strategize a way off the beach.

My issue with Dunkirk is the importance of your emotional resonance with it. The film’s success is all hinged on your emotional response, so that when the boats finally arrive on the beaches of Dunkirk, you should be euphoric, relieved, and overwhelmed. However, as Nolan gleefully edits his way between timelines and varying characters, no story or character stuck around for long enough to me to form that emotional connection.

The film aims to have that experiential form of tension, as these soldiers are essentially waiting around to die – something that was brilliantly established in its opening minutes with the falling flyers. Yet, at no point after its intro did I feel this tension, or truly sense that death was just around the corner. Instead, much like the soldiers were, I felt as if I was waiting, but as a viewer I wasn’t quite sure on what I was waiting for.

I can appreciate the craft and angle that Nolan was going for, and I honestly feel like one day I may enjoy this movie. But until then I must stand by my point that Dunkirk is emotionally barren, with few opportunities to truly connect with its experience. It is commendable of Nolan to try and keep things fresh, as Tenet is the first of his films in ten years to feel even remotely like something he has done before. I enjoy the fact that I don’t mindlessly love each of Nolan’s works, as it allows for a bit of give and take and leads to more interesting and diverse conversation. Dunkirk stimulates that conversation, and even now as I type out these final words on my thoughts, I anticipate and grow excited over revisiting, reevaluating and exploring what it is about this film, that makes me feel so conflicted.

Published by Aaron Bayne

I’m a film and video games journalist based in Scotland. I write stuff about them on my website, talk about them on my podcasts and film videos about them for BBC The Social.

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