By Aranyak Goswami (Kolkata)


Dunkirk and the Strange World of Christopher Nolan

Why a writer writes? Why a painter paints? Why a scientist works? The common answer to all these questions will be – to vent their creative expression and produce an original work that incites curiosity, amazement and mostly provide joy to the spectators or benefit the humanity thereby carving a permanent place in history of human quest of purity and excellence.

What does the best in all these vocations in top of their game do? They not only fulfil all these goals but leave an indelible mark with the breadth of their creative expression or innovation that transforms not only the present but also future generations with a layered imagery of creative experience, artistic renunciation and visual extravaganza. Another gift of any magician of creativity is to tell the story or chronicle a journey through minimalism. To cover multiple aspects with restrained minimalism and create multiple dimensions of allegorical perspectives with zest and aplomb.

Christopher Nolan has all these rare gifts to his credits. He has also achieved the rare distinction of creating a remarkable fan base who ensure great returns of his cinematic investments. Among his die -hard fans he has already achieved the status of God. It is highly ironic that despite his notoreitic fame and universal recognition he has been eluded of an Oscar in a major category like best picture or best direction.

The greatest challenge is to retain originality and the habit of producing some ingenuity even when majority think that someone has achieved its own creative zenith. Christopher Nolan has successfully defended his reputation to be creative, unique complicated yet engaging -rummaging through themes of time, dreams, noir, surrealism and nonlinear complexity of portraying unconventional stories. Through his unique style of depicting narratives employing conjuring wizardry of cinematic techniques gregariously displayed on a mammoth scale that can only be appreciated on the big screen has garnered both critical and commercial success.

However with Dunkirk he has stepped into a brand new territory of period war film. He has planned to bring one of the biggest evacuation operations in history on screen in a scale and style unprecedented in cinematic history.

How Dunkirk is a unique film especially for Nolan? Undoubtedly the film is very different from usual Nolan films as for the first time he has chosen a period drama where there is no scope for designing a contrived plot with several twists and turns bearing his typical signature of artistic complexity told in multiple directions ultimately leading to ideas that can have several climaxes or multiple meanings.

Hence from the everyday cine-lover perspective what is the uniqueness in the film for which we should watch it? What makes it distinct from films like Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates or The Bridge on the river Kwai? Below are outlined some of the basic impressions that makes Dunkirk a special film.

The Story Itself

As chronicled by Nolan himself the story of Dunkirk is not a victory story nor is it an American rescue mission with the blissful paint of the great American dream smudged over it. In a twist of destiny the soldiers have been rescued by civilian boats and the only great thing that the soldiers did was to survive the nerve numbing assault by the enemies.

The story itself had a big distinguishing feature of being a real story of survival and how about common people at the need of the hour stands tall enough to protect over three hundred thousand people to safety. One of the greatest rescue missions in the history of this planet where the most heroic act from the part of soldiers was- just survival.

The Treatment

Christopher Nolan had given specific comments and had shown a clear mindset about how to approach the film. He wanted to visualize the film entirely from the perspective of the survivors. One remarkable attribute about the film is showing the entire film without crystallized depiction of an opponent in the film. The impact of the attacks intended was sharp, sudden and intense and most importantly unexpected. This often happens in case of sustained attacks from a very strong and equipped adversary. The uncertainty and the extent of immediate attack incapacitate the opponent to a significant extent. One of the basic goals of the film was to portray this cold terror the paranoia producing cold sweats that plague us when someone very strong and focused strikes us with greatest power.

The film has been depicted from three perspectives clearly stated in the movie.
1) The mole 2) The sea 3) The air. For most part of the film cast and crew in each part of the film had limited contacts with each other. The narrative structure of the film for most part of the film was like a circular loop. Open ended for most of the film but joined cohesively at the end. There were minor overlaps in between also.

It is pointless to dissect and reveal the narrative of the film as even for those who have still not watched the film a plethora of material is available online. The most valuable part of the film is the deeply ingrained philosophy that drives the soul of the film.

In almost all great war films made like Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, or Bridge on the River Kwai the concept of war has been documented as a matter of heroism an act of wanton destruction, disruption to the fabric of social order, contentment of life, an act of terror and more convincingly an act of sacrifice and patriotism.

Nolan has avoided this traded path.

Primarily this entire operation has no great act of sacrifice attached to it .In common parlance it can be viewed as an act of cowardice and relentless instinctive tendency to survive at all costs as displayed by soldiers. Through the shell shocked act of Cillian Murphy the act of complete numbness and psychological breakdown of a soldier leading to morally degrading act of ardent selfishness has been shown both with impartial realism and sensitive compassion by the director. Despite his act of cowardice we empathize with him .Instead of being revealed as a villain he emerges as a tragic flesh and blood individual who is so much ravaged by acts of terror by the strong adversary that his moral fabric of humane qualities disintegrates completely. These effects as shown in the film can war of such magnitude does to a person personally.

There are also snippets in the film where we see montages of French soldier being disguised as a British army personnel getting into an overloaded British U-boat and where in the time of the horrific torpedo attack on British soldiers by German army -forces him to leave the ship to prevent complete drowning. A band of soldiers ready to do anything even shamefully denigrating to survive on their own.

Direction and Technicalities

Christopher Nolan is a big fan of big screen experience. Even in this emerging explosion of digital content and vast outreach of the digital market for the common viewers with its great commercial applications Nolan is an ardent fan of the old film format. He is not a great follower of the three dimensional (3D) format and considers it as mainly as a distracter of the proceedings of the movie. He is also very reluctant to use special effects in place of computer generated imageries to augment the visual extravaganza. He conjures extensive situations and mammoth reconstructions in the big screen with the huge application of practical effects.

Dunkirk as a film is an amalgamation of all his creative visions. The film format is in IMAX. The use of special effects has been minimal and the use of practical effects has been applied to a considerable degree. His cinematic vision is funnelled by a huge budget. However like his previous high budget enterprises like Interstellar the efforts have been made to use monumental using set pieces and original space crafts, U-boats and ammunitions from the actual Second World War with the climactic filming of the major part in actual place of happening Dunkirk.

Most of the boats, ammunitions and artilleries used in the film have been actually recovered from the Dunkirk site. The extensive use of practical effects in the film has given a separate dimension in the film adding a different degree of credibility to it. The use of practical effects in the film requires a monumental amount of creative vision and great control over craft along with investment of huge sums of money which a director of the creative stature and vast recognition is allowed to afford.

Christopher Nolan was also very particular about the use of IMAX as the format of the film and had a very large number of releases in IMAX large format film stocks as he was very definitive about the intrinsic value that such film formats add to war imageries of such mammoth proportions. The utter brutality of war and scenes of devastation have been brought about with a different dimension of realism.

Another mastery employed by the director was the minimal use of dialogues in the film. The characters depicted in the film almost interact non verbally with each other. This approach taken not only adds to the grave melancholy and acute sense of paranoia in conjunct with helplessness which demonstrates the daunting reality that when the turn of sheer survival comes words or exchanges have very little value.


One of the lasting collaborations of Nolan is with musician Hans Zimmer and with the actor Michael Caine. The music given by Hans Zimmer is not only exhilarating but also like in previous collaborations via Dark Knight and Interstellar significantly adds value to the film and elevates the setting of the film with utter sincerity focus and realism. Musical genius Hans Zimmer has a regular habit of conjuring excellent music which is in great synchronization with the mood of the film. With this particular film it has reached kind of a crescendo with the two collaborators ably complementing each other- one with his great cinematic vision and appropriate execution while other with the breadth and depth of his creative orgy. Hans Zimmer’s music was not just an addition but central to the narrative helping to augment the premise and perspective.


Christopher Nolan is a wizard of vision with the uncanny ability of producing exuberant frames, dark riveting images and sombre setups all depicted in huge massive frames of epic proportions. However what often translates in the big screen as his creative excellence is actually a creative collaboration with a very creative cinematographer. From his last movie Interstellar Hoyte van Hoytema has been his cinematographer. With some other high profile works like Her and Spectre this Dutch-Swedish technician has already built his reputation as one of the finest in the business. However this time a highly engaging collaboration has taken place between two mavericks and the result is kind of a creative crescendo. Each of the frames captured have been intense with an obsessive blend of intricacy, exactness intensity and impenetrable fetish towards details.

One of the highlight scenes when one of the young British soldiers ducks his head in the sand with successive aerial shellings mutilating every other fighter in the beach barely saving the young soldier showcases the magical ability that this cinematographer is capable of. The underwater submarine attacks or close focus in the face of Cillian Murphy who appears shell shocked. painfully helpless and broken by the ravages of the attack depicting the spine chilling tremors that an unstoppable adversary can inflict has been lyrically portrayed in the film with a mystique depth of artistic ability by the creative cinematographer.


Christopher Nolan had clearly stated that he wanted to take relatively lesser known actors in pivotal and supportive roles. The actors were kept in seclusion with each other without much communication between them. Nolan reasoned that in order to portray an authentic depiction of the conflicts in the film and to show undeterred terror with immediate sudden attacks from unprecedented corners seasoned actors have to be ruled out. Seasoned actors even with the help of their invincible craft often bring an unconditional finesse but they are incapable of bringing an alien mismatch out of the water feeling. Sudden reactions, ability to look devastated clueless and completely out of perspective is not the genre of actors who are somewhat masters of their own crafts. This does not mean that Dunkirk sports only new breed of actors. There are veterans like Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh and one of the director’s recent favourites the inimitable Tom Hardy.

They played important pivotal parts providing adequate support and in certain sense added an important heroic perspective but in no means acted as leader of the pack. Fionn Whitehead as Tommy a British private being relatively inexperienced actor one of the shell shocked border line cowardly survivors was actually the thread bearer of the film.

Another surprise element in the film was the one direction music band member Harry Styles. He was an unusual addition in the film taken after several auditions provided a power packed performance. Nolan was quite oblivious to the fame of Styles as a musician and the panache he showed is worthy of appreciation.

Thus the aggregation of performances from novice actors spear headed by some pros of the crafts, the acting performances created a new level of creative zenith a new peak to raise a new crescendo has been accentuated.


Dunkirk is a very good film. However this statement has nothing original in it. Dunkirk is a very different war film. Not only in the content or way the film has been designed proposed and executed. The film in its very fabric has a distinctive quality where survival is the main form of victory. Soldiers are not necessarily heroes in a traditional sense. The enemy is vicious an indomitable force of destruction but never emerges physically instead appears as a symbol of unmitigated terror. There is no siren of propagandist patriotism but rather a melancholy note of stupefying subjugation prevails all through.

As a viewer or a cine lover all you feel is pure claustrophobia. The film never shows mass genocide to depict horrors but inflict more terror and paranoia that even top notch horror films are able to deliver. Like in so many situations in real life survival looks very close yet so far, home so near but yet so distant, order in proximity yet complete chaos predominates.

Why is the world of Christopher Nolan strange?

Christopher Nolan is not a normal inventive person. He has got a strange vision of his own. He has regularly experimented with themes like time, dreams, the relative fragility of right and wrong. From his first film following he addresses the themes recurrently. Christopher Nolan is credited often as one of the best technically equipped directors in the business and an intellectually demanding director whose story telling is complex, looped often demanding multiple viewings due to multidimensionality and intricate labyrinth of story creation. However he gets little credit as a philosopher film maker like Inaritu or Paul Thomas Anderson. The depth of his understanding regarding themes of death, dreams time and redemption and the darkness sombreity with which these themes are revealed on screen bears ample testimony of his creative innovation.

He has the outstanding ability of creating great depths out of seemingly uncomplicated story lines. He often visits themes of revenge, death and competition along unchartered and untraversed trajectories. In films like Memento at the end revenge becomes insignificant creating an unending cycle of taking revenge and seeking redemption. In a classic turn of events the protagonist even fails to remember who was the killer? Has the cycle of avenger and be avenged has ended or has given rise to an unending loop?

In Inception the conception of dreams, subconscious desires have been depicted on the screen in an elaborate grandiose manner. He has delved deep into the subconscious complexity of human mind and has raised invaluable questions regarding life, love, pain and loss in his own convoluted mind space within the disguise of a science fiction. Like acclaimed creators of art like Goddard, Fellini or Truffaut, Kurosawa or our own home bred the great Satyajit Ray he is not credited with creation of pure artistic exuberance or imageries of immersive allegorical perspectives. However within a very set commercial setting and magnanimous scale Nolan conjures such frames memorable montages of great intrinsic artistic value and portrays intricate human relationships within a defining pedestal.

He normally engages his audience with the contrived scale of a twisted plot .However within each frame he shows his technical skill story telling acumen and most vitally his uncanny craft.

But why we should call his world strange? What is so disparate about it that it calls for the universe of his own?

Nolan resides within his own domain of mental space yet has the outstanding ability of communicating with the audience and earn respect and demands multiple viewings to appreciate his mastery for often understanding the depth and multiple meanings of his story. His art of storytelling has inspired film makers like Denis Villeneuve to explore themes of love, rebirth along the same line. He has the rarest attribute of being stationed in a fully commercial niche catering to the full entertainment quotient of the audience yet producing an artistic masterpiece that transcends boundaries of creative expectations.

He speaks in his own language of film making yet within his own creative domain generates imageries that are visual spectacles, technical wonders and binding story lines. Thus he remains a hero, a maverick, a revolutionary yet communicating with the world at disposal marvelled by his immense creative orgy touched by his magic enthralled by the figments of his imagination.

Rating: 4/5



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