Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Produced by Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan
Original Release Date: 21st July, 2017
Time is vital to a Christopher Nolan film. From his frequent use of non-linear storytelling in the likes of Memento to Batman Begins, to characters against the clock, in differing ways, throughout the second half of Inception, to astronauts having to be aware of the difference in the perception of it from their point of view in Interstellar, it seems only appropriate that, if reports are to be believed, Nolan’s latest film hovers around the subject of time travel.
One of the tracks on the soundtrack to Inception is even called ‘Time’.
The director’s flexibility when it comes to how time is perceived by his characters does appear to be one of his most frequent tropes, so it stands to reason that when Nolan came to deliver a war film centred around the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, a straight narrative that went from beginning to end in a single line was not going to be the approach his screenplay took.
Even more remarkably, of all the films that Nolan has delivered in recent years with their increasingly long running times that border on the three hour mark, the war epic you might have been expecting comes in for a lean one hour and forty six minutes, and yet as always, the running time is correct.
Many might complain about Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises being as long as they are (with Nolan, there are many who will complain, sometimes constructively, others aiming nit-picking criticisms at anything they can get their hands on), but the final part of his Batman trilogy and his tribute to 2001: A Space Odyssey had running times that the story demanded, with themes, ideas and areas of character development that needed the time to breathe.
There is no time to spare with Dunkirk, lives are in danger and the clock is ticking and the film’s narrative, structure and running time are representative of that.
Like so many of his films, time is all relative. The story takes an approach that focuses on land, sea, and air, and with each strand taking place within a week, a day and an hour before the evacuation, with those stands converging on each other for its increasingly tense final act.
In lesser hands it could have been confusing, leaving audiences scratching their heads as to what is happening and when, but instead Nolan lays everything out properly and correctly, and like a novel that can cherry pick where in the story the storyteller wants us to see what is happening, Nolan gives us the relevant information in a non-linear way that makes the film flow smoothly and in a way that feels ‘correct’.
It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and yet Nolan has been doing this nearly his whole career, from breakthrough Memento, to his approach of Batman’s origins in Batman Begins, to a van dropping off a bridge that ends up taking the characters a seemingly infinite amount of time to experience in the final stretch of Inception, yet Nolan’s ability with non-linear storytelling never for one moment feels confusing or leaves you adrift in the story.
Memento famously begins with the end and works its way to the beginning, and yet the story feels like it not only flows in the correct manner, but information and character development amazingly feel as they go in the correct formation even if the story isn’t.
Dunkirk’s story runs in the correct order, but Nolan shifts the film’s attention of differing parts of its timeline depending on what he wants us to see and when as it pertains to the story. Little details that are missed first time around show themselves up in repeat viewings, not least the appearance of Moonstone dotted on the sea in several shots from Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) point of view.
The elements come together in a glorious jigsaw puzzle kind of way, and as Hans Zimmer’s score escalates and builds (and credit where credit is due there, the score relies on electronic components than going all out for the orchestral work that another composer would go for), you can see the story clicking into place wonderfully, each stand correlating with each other, the cast of characters coming into each other’s orbit.
The sound of a watch ticks away over that soundtrack, and while Dunkirk is very much Nolan’s shortest film during a period in which he delivers epics filled with themes and ideas that are clearly personal to him, it is one that is perhaps most preoccupied with time and what it truly means, not to mention that along with Interstellar is perhaps a stirring account of humanity sticking together in times of great strive and difficulty.
Dunkirk is a war film, and one set during the (so far) last sustained global conflict, but for one moment a country came together to bring home its sons safely when the odds were stacked against them. Interstellar was a humanist fable about humanity having to stick together to survive, and with Dunkirk advocating a similar story (and one that shies away from any sentimental jingoism that would have been so easy to fall into), both films make for a thematic double bill that not only plays with notions of time, but which also make the argument for the director not being as colder with human emotions as you might think.
Dunkirk is available to buy on iTunes in the U.S and to rent or buy on Amazon Video in the U.K.