Pity poor Tom Hardy. After appearing as Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, and now as an RAF fighter pilot in the writer/director’s latest, a fictionalized re-creation of 1940’s Dunkirk evacuation, it’s easy to joke that the British-born actor is destined to have his mouth muzzled nearly every time he appears in one of Nolan’s large-scale epics.
And large-scale, Dunkirk most certainly is. While I was unable to view Nolan’s chronology-shuffling war picture in an ideal setting the first time, I’ll be seeing it again in at least one of the 125 cinemas nationwide that will be projecting it the old-fashioned way, on film and in the 70 mm format. They include three local venues: the AMC Loews Boston Common, the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. Nolan and his extremely talented cinematographer, Hoyte Van Hoytema (who also lensed Nolan’s last picture, 2014’s Interstellar), actually shot this entire production with a combination of IMAX and 65 mm film, formats Nolan has employed on only certain sequences of four of his previous features. For those adventurous viewers willing to go the extra mile to experience the film in the best possible format—70 mm IMAX—the nearest venue is Providence Place in Rhode Island.
Sure, you could shell out an exorbitant amount to watch the picture on one of the digital IMAX screens that AMC has retrofitted into a number of their multiplexes, but it’s not for nothing that a number of my critic colleagues and I refer to these screens as LieMAX. With the exception of the digital IMAX location at Jordan’s Furniture in Reading, which utilizes a truly state-of-the-art 4K laser projector, they’re a poor man’s alternative to the real thing, pitched at a rich man’s prices.
At this point, you may be asking yourself why I’ve been focusing so much on the visual presentation of the film. Simply put, it’s this picture’s raison d’être. If you’re looking for a straightforward narrative about the events surrounding the military evacuation, you could do worse than watch Leslie Norman’s 1958 melodrama, also called Dunkirk. Or better yet, you could seek out Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, this spring’s much smaller-scaled romantic comedy-drama that focused on the very human cast and crew of a fictional film production designed to celebrate the civilian effort to aid in Dunkirk’s evacuation. (Don’t ever call it a “retreat”!)
Nolan, on the other hand, shows very little interest in developing backstories for his characters. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to remember many of their names, save for a civilian teenager named George (Barry Keoghan). He hops aboard the Moonstone, a small pleasure yacht piloted by a Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), who respond to a call to sail across the Channel to help get the shellshocked British soldiers off of the eastern mole on Dunkirk’s beach, where they’re sitting ducks for German attack, mainly by air. And yes, I did need to look up these last two characters’ names.
The ostensible star of the film, though, is a foot soldier named Tommy played by debuting actor Fionn Whitehead. When first we see him, Tommy is outrunning German infantry fire in Dunkirk’s streets as he makes a mad dash for the aforementioned beach, whereupon he stumbles upon his new mate for the next week, a silent soldier played by French actor Damien Bonnard.
But then, there’s very little in the way of dialogue in Nolan’s script, save for the chatter between a couple of Spitfire pilots played by Jack Lowden and Hardy—and you’ll be hard-pressed to understand much of what they say. That’s due to both the muffled sound of their voices as they speak through their oxygen masks and the insistent score by regular Nolan collaborator Hans Zimmer, who’s seemingly built his music around the sound of a ticking clock (we get it), alternating his typically propulsive cues with the sound of gunfire, explosions and surf.
Presenting the historical events from three vantage points enables Nolan to indulge in a narrative device he’s employed in various ways since 2000’s Memento: nonlinear time passage. The events on the beach transpire over the course of a week; the civilians’ approach in their small boats takes place over the course of a day, and the aerial dogfights lasted only a single hour. Rather than present these events in straightforward chronological order, Nolan has shuffled them, intercutting all of the action at once. The effect is disorienting once he begins presenting day and night scenes simultaneously, and although this does create some tension when you see the same events replayed at different times from varying perspectives, the mental gymnastics required is bound to put off more casual viewers who have little interest in seeing the film a second time, which is practically required to completely comprehend how all the pieces fit together.
Still, you’re unlikely to have a more cinematic experience in theaters this year. Choose your cinema wisely. ♦
Starring Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs, with 70 mm presentations at Boston Common, Coolidge Corner and Somerville.