In a blockbuster season dominated by brightly-coloured superheroes and giant robots, Dunkirk stands alone. Although undeniably epic, this true World War II story concerns an evacuation rather than a battle, and is fronted by mostly fresh faces.
In anyone else's hands, it might've been a tough sell. But Christopher Nolan is no ordinary director. Plus, he has some help from a certain tousle-haired pop star. But more on Harry Styles' film debut a bit later.
As modern cinema's boldest blockbuster film-maker, Nolan (Inception, Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy) has always marched to the beat of his own drum.
"I think with every blockbuster we've done, if you look too much at what's around you, it's frightening because you realise you are trying to do something different," Nolan tells TimeOut in Los Angeles. "You want to have blinders on a little bit, you run your own race. I've come to have faith that an audience judges a film on its own terms. I don't think we sit there going 'Hey, how come there aren't any giant robots?'"
As anyone familiar with the real story knows, the Dunkirk evacuation was one of World War II's most critical junctures. In June 1940, before America had joined the war, 400,000 allied troops were pinned down on the French coast by the seemingly unstoppable Nazi machine. Home was just across the English channel, but the troops had no way of getting there. So the Brits instituted Operation Dynamo, a plan to get the boys back to England with the help of a flotilla of hundreds of civilian boats.
"I think this is one of the greatest stories there is," says Nolan. "Like most British people, I'd grown up with the story. As a British person, it carries a very special resonance. It felt like a film that hadn't been made that should be made."
Nolan chronicles the evacuation from three distinct perspectives. Land: via a selection of desperate young soldiers stranded on the beach; sea: via a pleasure boat captained by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) heading into the fray; and air: via a small squadron of cover-providing Spitfires lead by Tom Hardy.
Shot on large-format Imax cameras, Dunkirk presents plenty of gargantuan spectacle, but the aerial dogfight sequences are perhaps the most impressive achievement in the film.
"It was very important to break new ground [with the dogfights]" says Nolan. "When you look at dogfights that are done with computer graphics, the temptation to violate the laws of physics is just too great. We wanted to go back to first principals, saying 'Okay let's get real Spitfires, let's get real Messerschmitts, get up in the air and really shoot these things.' We really wanted to give the audience a feeling of how difficult it would be to be up there, the claustrophobia, the danger."
The land component of the story is populated by unknown young actors, with one notable exception: singer Harry Styles of the pop group One Direction, making his acting debut.
TimeOut asked Styles if he felt like he had to go the extra mile on set to prove he wasn't just a pop star indulging a whim.
"I didn't want to try and overcompensate too much," he replies, softly. "I just wanted to go and do what Chris wanted me to do and that was it really. I went in with no idea of what it was going to be like so I just wanted to do what I was told really."
All parties are adamant that Styles endured the same drawn-out audition process as everybody else.
"I guess my being nervous probably helped, really put me on edge. I'm a nervous wreck most of the time. I think any time you're trying something new or putting yourself out there in any way is obviously a little nerve-wracking."
His performance in the finished product is revelatory, but not showy.
"I think I really enjoyed being the new guy. And I didn't know what I was doing. It is humbling. And working with someone like Chris feels like a privilege. It's hard not to feel lucky to be there, working on a set like this. So yeah, I found it humbling."
Styles won't be drawn on the notion that his presence may expose the film to a wider audience:
"Well, I think when it comes out people will realise that it's not just for people who are interested in history. It's such an emotional character-driven story, which obviously happens to be set within this incredible piece of history, that kind of makes it all the more meaningful and emotional."
As with many of the people involved in the film, the story carries some personal relevance for Styles.
"My granddad was in the RAF so he's kind of very excited to watch and I think he's proud that I'm part of telling this story."
LOWDOWN: Who: Director Christopher Nolan and Harry Styles What: Dunkirk When: In cinemas next Thursday
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