The Narrative of Dunkirk

In 2017, writer-director Christopher Nolan released his much anticipated war outing ‘Dunkirk’ which polarized audiences worldwide right from the moment ‘go’. One group, to which I belonged, hailed it as a work of imaginative triumph and as an instant classic, while the other group criticized it for the lack of a human core and labelled it a bland and pretentious by nature.

Much hate in particular was vented towards the non-linear narrative, which the naysayers of the film rendered needless and out-of-the-place within the subject matter of the film. This brief write-up of mine hopes to prove the contrary :-

  1. CONFLICT :-

Although I am aware of the exceptions to this rule (Walden, Man With A Movie Camera, Chelsea Girls to name a few), it goes without saying that almost of all the movies we see thrive on the progression from the establishment of a conflict to its resolution/non-resolution. They make the work engrossing and act as an invisible adhesive that joins scenes together by giving them a route of focused and logical progression. The fracturing of time ‘is’ the conflict of Dunkirk with its incoherence prodigiously utilizing our inherent need to juxtapose the events in linearity so as to draw us into the work. Many have argued that Nolan should have rather opted for a straightforward, linear narrative, but they do so in complete ignorance of what the film hopes to accomplish in the first place – portraying war through a collective consciousness rather than an individual one. A conflict situation in the context of Dunkirk would have only emanated in a linear narrative had it been approached from an individual perspective (say The Pianist) or a battalion perspective (like Saving Private Ryan), but doing so would be completely at odds with the crux of the movie. The nature of the narrative acts a syntax here doing what Rosebud does in Citizen Kane, molding into a cohesive whole what would otherwise have been hanging threads, full of potential but no viable means of exploring it with.

2. NATURE :-

Dunkirk is a work epic in its scope and fittingly, so are the antagonists at play in it – land, water, air. Less is inflicted on the Allied forces by the ‘enemy’ compared to the hindrances the elements of nature bring to the fore. The non-linear narrative enhances the feeling of entrapment omnipresent in the film by creating the sense that all events are materializing at the same time, which contributes to the development of an aura that all the elements of nature have risen up together at the same time, up in arms to prevent the escape of the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk. It levels the stakes to an unparalleled high which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.

3. TIME :-

As a medium, cinema lets us fracture time, elongate it and more importantly in this case, compress it. The evacuation of Dunkirk is so massive in its scope and so distant in its varying geographical settings that to have to make this film with a linear narrative would have meant risking a runtime mirroring a Tarr or Diaz film, a risk Nolan couldn’t afford to take considering the production values riding on the film. More importantly, the non-linear narrative helps put a clock on the events, menacingly ticking louder and clearer with every passing scene. Nameless these soldiers remain, but the clocks act as a connective tissue making them human and knowable to us, causing us to care almost beyond bearing about their fates and in process, transfixing us to the screen, watching in fear of what might happen to them. And us.

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