INCEPTION EXPLORED THE human subconscious. The Dark Knight Rises presented an entire city under siege. And Interstellar pushed the very laws of physics to their extreme. Where next for the ever-ambitious Christopher Nolan? The most colossal conflict in human history, that’s where.
“Filmmakers always look for gaps in cinema,” Nolan tells Empire. “And Dunkirk is one of the greatest stories in human history, untold in modern cinema.” Joe Wright’s Atonement tackled the epic evacuation of 330,000 Allied soldiers between 26 May and 4 June 1940 after the Battle Of France was lost, but no movie has made Operation Dynamo its focus since Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk in 1958. That film had used Trevor Dudley-smith’s novel The Big Pick-up as its chief inspiration, focusing equally on the retreating soldiers and the plucky boat-owning civilians who mucked in to help. But Nolan says he found his in “the many first-hand accounts of people who went through this unique experience”.
Which meant gathering quite an ensemble to struggle in the sand. Joining such fresh faces as Fionn Whitehead, Will Attenborough (grandson of Richard, who appeared in the ’58 Dunkirk), Barry Keoghan and Harry Styles (yes, that one) are Nolan regulars Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, plus a few impressive veterans — namely Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance.
“Chris is the most serious and interesting filmmaker,” says Rylance, whose exact role has yet to be revealed. “This is his war film; every great filmmaker, at some moment, makes one. He’s made a powerful, simple and pure war film. About a retreat, a loss. A miraculous loss.”
Nolan is maintaining his reputation for keeping things as practical as possible. “Because there’s no CGI, everything has to be created in front of the IMAX camera,” reports Rylance. “It was
fascinating to watch.” The production shot on location in Dunkirk, using elaborate cut-out props of military vehicles to populate backgrounds, reconditioning French Navy destroyer the Maillébrézé and crashing an antique aircraft for real. “I wanted to use my large-format camera to immerse the audience in this incredible journey,” says Nolan. “The movie puts the audience into the boots of someone there on the beach, into the cockpit of a spitfire pilot, onto the deck of a civilian yacht entering hell.” As Rylance puts it, “It lands running. It’s just BANG! Straight into the middle of a desperate situation.” Nolan confirms that it’ll be a visceral experience. “It’s an IMAX odyssey,” he says. “Virtual reality without goggles.” DAN JOLIN
Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema and director Christopher Nolan on location. Left: Tom Hardy as Farrier.