Dunkirk: the failings of an art-house war film  

Why does Nolan's latest release not match the quality of his stellar back catalogue?

427
Photograph: Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

There’s no doubting Dunkirk’s technical excellence – to doubt it would not only be misjudged, but insane. It’s a marvellous piece of filmmaking, which undoubtedly will be taught in film schools and analysed within an inch of its life in the future. But how does it stand up as a piece of cinema? We’ve established its technical virtuosity, but as a portrait (or several portraits) of human survival, how does it stand up? Not very well – well, not as good as I’d expect given that it’s written and directed by Christopher Nolan: the man who brought us Memento, Inception, The Dark Knight Trilogy and crucially, Interstellar, which for me stands shoulder-high with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (and Kubrick incidentally is who many are comparing Nolan to in response to Dunkirk).

So why isn’t Nolan’s film up to snuff? The sanitised Dunkirk has to be the first Nolan film to have characters that aren’t as cerebral as the subject matter they participate in. Take any of the characters from his previous films; the Joker in The Dark Knight surely had a very high IQ, as did Batman himself; the mind-burglars from Inception despite being burglars were exceptionally intelligent people, and almost all the characters in Interstellar must’ve had degrees in astrophysics, etc. – contrastingly, Dunkirk is strictly about ordinary people. But it’s wrong to assume that films about ordinary people are boring. Fargo is a perfect example. That’s a film about ordinary (and at times, stupid) people, but it revels in their ordinariness; their everyday struggles. The film is empathetic to their totally domesticated worries. The problem with Dunkirk is that unlike Fargo, it’s devoid of empathy, or as I would actually argue, characters – let’s put that forward as a theory: Dunkirk doesn’t have any characters. In this sense, Dunkirk’s greatest failing is this: Nolan wants us to sympathise with a landmass, a national attitude perhaps – he wants us to empathise with the UK as we would empathise with Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Here’s the problem: I don’t think that’s possible.

Nolan isn’t the first to try this. I’d argue that Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come and See (1985) attempts the same thing and succeeds, but mostly because Klimov’s film about the Nazi occupation of the Byelorussian SSR is so gruelling, so intense, that it becomes the collective scream of a subjugated people. The film is tactile and terrifying. Dunkirk by contrast is fumbling and dull. Whereas Come and See is brutally honest about war and human nature, Dunkirk just wants to be those things; crippled by its own ingenuity and brio. But I’d much rather watch a director fail on their own terms than someone else’s, like a studio’s.

If anyone should be blamed for Dunkirk, it should be Christopher Nolan. Besides, I think he’d want it that way.

Dunkirk is screening at The Dukes on 10th-12th September.