The success of Dunkirk has led to more proclamations of director Christopher Nolan’s genius – yet his filmography is a peculiar mix of the inspired and the painfully dull.
The Guardian is nothing if not thorough. In its recent coverage of Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan’s telling of the 1940 evacuation of wartime France by Allied forces, the newspaper has been both laudatory and angrily damning.
Film critic Andrew Pulver was full of praise, declaring that with Dunkirk Nolan has “put himself in the [Stanley] Kubrick league”. Contributor David Cox, on the other hand, was aghast at the positive reviews the film has received, declaring it “bloodless, boring and empty”.
To some Nolan is a genius, with a body of work that puts him firmly in the pantheon of all-time great directors. To others he is an overrated specialist in tiresome, pseudo-intellectual blockbusters. It is this writer’s humble opinion that Nolan is no Kubrick – but that Dunkirk is a brilliant film that displays the best qualities of the British director.
One characteristic running throughout Nolan’s work is an obsessive attention to detail. When harnessed in the right way, he produces sophisticated, tightly-coiled storytelling that is thrilling on both a visceral and emotional level. That was the case with his breakthrough hits Memento (2000) and Insomnia (2002), and with certain aspects of his Dark Knight Trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012).
When this obsession with detail consumes Nolan, however, he is prone to serve up bloated, exposition-heavy films that get lost in the intricacies of their own plots. This was the case with Interstellar (2014) and, though it may be an unpopular opinion, Inception (2010) too. I would also argue that in its totality, The Dark Knight Trilogy should be filed away in the overrated category.
But back to Dunkirk, which feels like a massive return to form for Nolan, precisely because there is very little plot, scene-setting or even dialogue. Instead, Dunkirk is about capturing a mood.
It is here that Nolan’s steely control and attention to detail comes into its own. The film plays out like a silent movie comprised of various interlinked and beautifully-shot perspectives, either at sea, in the air or on the beach. Nolan meticulously crafts a sensory experience that feels completely authentic.
Dunkirk forgoes the traditional war genre tropes of jingoism, heroism and gore to offer something more visionary. The tone is melancholic from start to end, as the film becomes a meditation on the desperation and failure of men.
Human fallibility is at the heart of Nolan’s best films, going back to Memento. This neo-noir detective story displays Nolan’s penchant for complex narrative structures as the film plays in reverse, opening with its final scene and working backwards. This reverse-plotting device is primarily a trick designed to convey the broken mind of Guy Pearce’s short-term amnesiac Leonard. Mood and tone are paramount again as the viewer becomes immersed in Leonard’s unnerving, unknowable plight.
The same is true of Insomnia, a remake of a 1997 Norwegian crime thriller. In Nolan’s hands the film is not just a simple detective story, but rather a devastating deconstruction of the psyche and sanity of Al Pacino’s detective, a man broken from lack of sleep and a lifetime of guilt.
It is when Nolan’s gaze moves away from people, towards more opaque philosophical or scientific problems, that the director tends to falter. While Inception was hailed almost universally by critics upon its release, and to a lesser extent Interstellar, both films are two sides of the same coin. Both are concerned with seminal questions about the very nature of reality and the space-time continuum, and both see Nolan taking himself way too seriously.
The scale and intellectual ambition of these films has been another reason for critics to make equivalences with Kubrick, but the comparison only underlines the problems with Nolan’s work.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick explored humankind’s place in the universe through beautifully pared-back storytelling and majestic, transcendent imagery. In Interstellar, Nolan provides the imagery but also lays on scene upon scene of bone-dry dialogue about relativity, gravity and wormholes.
He gets caught up in the detail at the expense of conveying the film’s bigger themes with any levity or resonance. The story is just a functional machine, the formula for a cod science equation of Nolan’s own making. By the time Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut is bizarrely seen floating behind an endless series of bookcases towards the end of the film’s 2 hour and 49 minute runtime, the overall inclination is to give up, rather than attempt comprehension.
The same is true of Inception, which gets lost in its world of ‘dreams within dreams’ and never looks back. The idea is dynamite on paper, but Nolan takes his self-composed rules of ‘dream extraction’ so seriously that there is no room to have any fun. Instead the film becomes an oppressively complex mess of impenetrable plotlines.
If we rewind back to 2006, we can see that magician thriller The Prestige fell somewhere in between the best and worst of Nolan. There is cod science again, plus plenty of narrative complexity, but Nolan is able to shepherd these elements into a cohesive and empathetically human story about the destructive capacity of jealousy. If anything, it was Nolan wrestling with the two sides of his filmmaking brain.
The Dark Knight Trilogy is similarly schizophrenic. There are many moments of controlled, clinical brilliance, such as the opening heist scene in The Dark Knight, or the underground fight between Batman and Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. But Nolan again gets tangled up in too much plot and exposition, and too much po-faced philosophising.
The sea breeze sweeping into Dunkirk feels like a cathartic breath of fresh air for Nolan’s career. Stripped-back but luscious, epic but also human, it is a worthy addition to the canon of a director who fascinates and infuriates in equal measure.