Darkest Hour from the other side, and with many of the same problems as that film, Dunkirk is possibly director Christopher Nolan’s most emotionally distant and perfunctory film. There’s some bravura sequences scattered throughout, but great individual sequences do not a great film make. Dunkirk is all cool technique for the sake of it, as there’s no actual story, characters, or reason to care involved.
I mean, there’s a lot of characters, but there’s no context, motivations, or development of any of them. Many of them, especially the young soldiers on the beach, vaguely resemble one another so keeping track of who is who depends on your ability to differentiate between handsome brunette actors in period military uniform. Then there’s a series of big name actors lending their artistic cache and gravitas to their thinly written roles, including Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and James D’arcy. Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy remind us of how great and underappreciated they are as actors by seemingly turning their vaguely sketched out characters into golden material with more weight and teeth than the script contained.
Yet Dunkirk contains some of the greatest filmmaking in Nolan’s career. The opening stretch is a small wonder, and would’ve made for one hell of a short film. There’s also the tense scenes of desperation and hopelessness as threats continually pummel the Allied Forces while they wait for help to arrive. Yet much of this is happening without major context, and the splicing of three stories taking place across different time zones creates a hazy sense of continuity, narrative coherence, and understand of what is going on when and where.
Spatial coherence has never been a strong selling point for Nolan, and Dunkirk represents this problem in stereophonic sound and the widest screen imaginable. What was a forgivable sin in his Batman trilogy becomes a major black mark against this film as the precise editing tricks of the opening fall by the wayside to pure visual and sonic cacophony. If this editing choice was supposed to represent the emotional bewilderment of the soldiers, then it succeeds in the sense that the audience will be just as equally bewildered as to what is going on.
He’s better than this, so of course he’s finally being rewarded for his least personal or adventurous film to date. It’s handsomely made, but rather anonymous in execution. Any number of talented British directors could have made this film, and probably made it just as fussy and with the muted colors.