I left “Dunkirk” with the word “liminality” on the tip of my tongue. The idea of the liminal space has always intrigued me. A liminal space is that ambiguous disorientation that comes when you exist in that middle ground, uncertain of what comes, or what to do next. It’s a good concept to keep in mind when thinking of Christopher Nolan’s films, generally, and “Dunkirk” in particular, given his penchant for thrusting his audiences, almost always, in the midst of a world that wallows in the liminal.
The key narrative strategy of “Dunkirk” betrays this disposition, presenting us with a story told through muddled timelines on land, sea and in the air. We have three timelines exploring the ways that the British soldiers dealt with the colossal retreat from Dunkirk while under siege from the Germans. But it’s not just three timelines, but three timelines of different lengths–a week, a day and an hour–which are all racing towards (and away from) each other. “Dunkirk” is not an especially narrative film but this strategy is responsible for the film’s narrative panache.
No one, not even his greatest fans, would call Nolan an actor’s director. His interests have always been in macro incidences and striking set-pieces. Although I’m not sure I can commit to “Dunkirk” as his best film (hat-tip to the undervalued “The Prestige”), it is the film that most explicitly represents his disinterest in his actors as anything beyond a means to an end. And, Nolan is not necessarily wrong for this approach in “Dunkirk.” Exploring the horrors of war as a theme does not necessarily require actors to be the centre of any tableau. Nolan’s directorial vision is one of detachment and “Dunkirk” observes all its characters from a distance. They are simply part of a larger milieu that says, ‘Look at this chaos. Look at what war has done.’ And for “Dunkirk,” these ciphers are all expendable.
It’s why conversations on the inclusive or exclusive nature of the film have been complicated for me. The Guardian published a piece this week about the film’s lack of African and Indian faces, and the argument makes sense. Still, “Dunkirk” is not a movie about expansiveness or a movie about inclusivity, it’s a movie about blinkered focus that is told with blinkered focus. Despite Nolan’s claims that he has been culling this story for some time, the film reveals a director’s intent more than a screenwriter’s (he wrote and directed the film). “Dunkirk” is a director’s symphony that is hardly indebted to its script. Even the most resounding praise-song to it should and must bear this in mind. Certainly, turning those ciphers into ciphers of colour or of another nationality would not damage the film’s blinkered focus. But then it would not improve it either. To be expansive about all those who were at Dunkirk would be to value context, and context is something which “Dunkirk” sharply avoids. The intertitle crawl at the beginning is as sparing as it could be. The aerial shots of the beach under siege (Hoyte Van Hoytema’s photography is gorgeous and compelling) confound more than reveal. “Dunkirk” relishes its decontextualised focus. The film that Nolan presents to us only works with as little context as possible, otherwise the experiment is upended and the focus moves to the things that it lacks and not the thing that it actually produces.
And, generally, I wouldn’t indict Nolan for not focussing on character. The first rule of criticism is critique what is presented to you, not what you want to be presented. And, even as everything in “Dunkirk” eschews character-focused sentiment, the film’s resolution gives me pause. For when the disparate strands comes together and the film hurtles towards its resolution, everything on screen seems to be calling for us to meet the situation with the gratitude of the soldiers. And although we are happy that the chaotic onslaught has ceased, the cheerfulness of the accompanying music (Hans Zimmer’s score has been polarising but I loved it) is not given enough context for us to really respond to it as resoundingly as it urges us to. Look to the last shot for my dilemma. Nolan ends the film on a face and not on an object but the film before that significant end has been more interested in the things and the macros than the faces and the micros. And as good as “Dunkirk” manages to be, the more it settles I can’t help thinking: This is really good. But, surely, there should be something more?
“Dunkirk” succeeds on the most visceral of levels–the film is striking, it is compelling and at the end of it, I was satisfied with what it deigned to do. There’s an irony at its centre, though. The lack of interest in any character as a person makes it more cerebral than emotional. However, its focus on war as something like sensory overload but without any overarching thesis statement beyond “Look, chaos,” makes it come off as decidedly anti-intellectual. “Dunkirk” leans in on all the things Nolan likes: frenetic editing, well produced technical aspects, and a storyline that reads like a puzzle. The result is a film that affects but never charms, a solid film but also a brittle one. Certainly, its vision of history is compromised by its blinkered vision but no one said that war is supposed to be fair or easy to figure out. Nolan, with his ambivalent directorial distance, is happy to leave us in the liminal space to draw our own conclusions.
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