War Without Character: Dunkirk

The thing about Tom Hardy is, he’s not a bench player. He might excel in supporting roles, wrapping his weirdly thick lips around a villainous frontier drawl in The Revenant, or channeling charming, terrifying violence as Alfie Solomons in Peaky Blinders, but it’s only because it gives him more freedom to go for broke. In these smaller roles, he can go big without overwhelming the audience or pushing the story into the corner.

In fairness, most filmmakers are chuffed to give Hardy this opportunity. The stocky, enigmatic Brit has that rare ability to channel vulnerability and charisma, even in the roles that bring him closest to evil. Christopher Nolan certainly knows and appreciates Hardy’s firepower – he famously played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, source of a million impressions, and also starred in Inception. So what did he do with Hardy when it came to Dunkirk, his critically acclaimed new WW2 epic? He put him in a plane for the entire film, where he can’t use his brooding physicality to woo audiences, and then he hid his face and voice behind an oxygen mask.

 hid his face and voice behind oxygen mask

Which says a lot about Dunkirk, a movie that goes against everything you have come to expect from Nolan, or war films in general. For better or worse, and you’ll know pretty quickly whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to not appreciate the ambition and scale of the film

At the session I attended, the cinema was packed with Christopher Nolan fan-boys. They would have been there to see his new film, even if it was a Garfield sequel. In that, he’s a bit of rarity in modern cinema, a filmmaker who can draw a crowd as much as any of his actors. Certainly he plays to this old-fashioned idea of film – he’s uncompromising in his vision, famously wears a suit every day, and bans mobile phones on set.

many people stand side of river with gun

And much like his star Hardy, he’s become known for a certain style. The Dark Knight trilogy launched him to the big leagues, when he darkened the franchise and offered new perspective on the motivations of Bruce Wayne and his foes. It was all about character. What drives Batman? What drives his enemies? It offered complexity and substance to a genre of film that had historically banked on humour and action. In Inception, we saw Leo struggle with the death of his wife, and in Interstellar, Matthew McConaughey balanced a love for his daughter with his calling and the future of their planet. It’s heavy, layered stuff, and the type of aspiring filmmaking that made Nolan a star.

And yet, with Dunkirk, on the most absolute stage, of real war, he does something completely different: he ignores the characters. He offers no names, no personal history. No character development. And in doing so, he’s made his most ambitious film to date.

The film itself is just a snapshot in time, from sea, land and air. It’s tense. It’s cinematic and awesome and harrowing. But it’s anonymous.

picked up midway through their ordeal

The characters are unknowns, picked up midway through their ordeal and flung into chaos, where there’s no time for polite introductions or banter. Think back to every war movie you’ve ever seen and you can probably remember something from the hero’s backstory. Their job at home, the kids and wife that he left behind. It’s a bit of character development that’s often shared between soldiers in the trenches or by a campfire, as they lick their wounds and get a little nostalgic over what they’re fighting for.  It’s a recipe that has been followed in countless war films because it’s a simple way to heighten the stakes and get you emotionally invested. But by ignoring the characters, the feature that was so important in his previous films and in war films generally, he’s crafted something unique. On the nameless faces, you’re presented with a blank canvas, to project your own fears and hopes and doubts. You’re the everyman, trying to get home, and you can’t help but feel their struggle. Every moment of heroism or cowardice is yours to own. It’s terrifying stuff for a generation of young men who are fortunate to have never known war on this scale.

It’s not just in characterisation that Nolan has plunged himself into the unknown, though. He has, at times, copped some flack for overcomplicating his films. There is perhaps some fairness to this, though it’s nitpicking holes in a pretty remarkable stable of movies. Inception could have done with one less dream-within-a-dream, Interstellar could have simplified the science a little… But there are worse things than reaching too far. At least he’s challenging the audience to want more.

people come in the ship alive

Dunkirk is the best of both worlds. It’s simple to the point of raw – 400,000 men stuck on a beach, trying to get home – and yet it is uncompromisingly so, in a way few directors would dare. It doesn’t reach for dialogue to convey emotion. It doesn’t depend on gore to shock (it has a PG rating, in fact). And it doesn’t lean on big personalities to establish humanity.

The characters, the story and the emotion creep through the cracks. You’re so overwhelmed by the vision, Hans Zimmer’s nail-biting score, and the vast cinematography, that you’re invested whether you like it or not. You feel their despair, their frustration. And you feel their fear every time you hear the whistle of an enemy bomber in the distance.

neglects the simplest path audience heart

In that, it’s more inspired than any of his other films, and other war films. It mightn’t be the Nolan film you watch again and again, but it is the one that has moved the needle in filmmaking the most, and the one that will stick with you. Nolan puts so much faith in his ability to craft cinematic suspense that he neglects the simplest path to an audience’s heart – character. And that’s gutsier than a story about diving into dreams or heading into space to save humanity.

This was a guest post by Robert O’Reilly:
Robert O’Reilly is a content marketing consultant based in Sydney, specialising in luxury lifestyle brands at Wigwam Solutions.