Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017) — Time and History

Dunkirk feels like the culmination of Christopher Nolan’s near-two decade obsession with the presentation of time in film.

Beginning in 2000 with the reverse-flow of Memento, each of Nolan’s apparent passion projects — those in which he seems to have absolute creative authority — have in some way dealt with how the passage of time is communicated on-screen: Inception (2010) memorably layered concurrent levels of dreamworld, each with its own subdividing timeline, while Interstellar (2014) explored humanity’s nascent steps towards conquering inter-dimensional time and space.

Dunkirk’s depiction of time is understandably more sober, but its triptych structure has its foundation in Inception’s portrayal of time in each successive dream level — though we spend a week on the ground, a day on sea and a mere hour in the air, these three ‘acts’ cross-cut constantly, linked through recurring imagery and key events witnessed from multiple perspectives, often outside chronological consistency. The result is a visual symphony — an experiential, experimental film, and a retelling of a historical event in a structural and poetic manner that could only be achieved in the cinematic medium. More than just a mere blow-by-blow of the incredible Allied retreat, Dunkirk strives to embody feeling — a subjective account, rather than an objective one.

Though the film is undoubtedly an artistic undertaking, that by no means dampens the film’s visceral nature. Bullets and explosions erupt with teeth-rattling ferocity and the Luftwaffe’s dive-bombing scream reverberates through Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack — as does the ever-present ticking of Nolan’s own pocket-watch, serving as a countdown to…salvation? Failure? Death? Nolan neither shies from or revels in the horrors of war - Dunkirk is an unsentimental film, but not a heartless one, a film of profound intensity and poetic realism. The timeline-jumping narrative structure only serves to keep that intensity building throughout its relatively meagre 106 minute running time, a Shepard tone turned visual.

Though the shadow of the incoming Axis forces loom large over the film they are almost entirely unseen, a known quantity. For the most part Nolan eschews burdening the film with unnecessary historical context, a stark contrast to his previous films, which are frequently bogged down with heavy, albeit necessary, exposition. Just as Dunkirk stands contrary to that trend within Nolan’s own work, it is a beacon of artistic achievement within the context of blockbuster cinema.

Nolan remains a master of his craft and will no doubt continue to produce films of considerable artistic merit, which nevertheless retain an immense popular appeal. When Dunkirk’s various pieces slot into place there is an intense thrill to be had, one seldom found outside of a darkened auditorium. It is an admirable achievement in large-scale, spectacle filmmaking and Christopher Nolan continues make demands of his audience far exceeding the typical blockbuster filmmaker. He trusts his audience to keep up, to find meaning rather than have it spoon-fed, and to retain an understanding of the film’s chronology despite the impressionistic way in which it ‘unfolds’ — a particularly apposite phrase when viewing Dunkirk as part of Nolan’s time-bending canon.

When films have an indistinct flow of time, they can often feel adrift from a sense of reality or immediacy, but in giving Dunkirk such an amorphous structure Nolan shows he believes in the capabilities of cinema audiences to understand a real story told with unreal flair.