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A Closer Look: Christopher Nolan and the psychological impact on his characters

Despite the unquestionable scale of Christopher Nolan‘s upcoming WW2 epic Dunkirk, the trailers have suggested we’re due something a little less like Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan [1998] (which undoubtedly highlighted the horror of war) and is in fact an even deeper delve into the psychological side of the people involved, both on the ground and those coming back to rescue people from the horrific, historic happening.

If you look at Nolan’s on-screen past, it’s always about the mind and how we all process the information put in front of us. If we start by heading back to Following [1998], which is a story about a writer who follows people in London just to observe and learn. But when Jeremy Theobald‘s ‘The Young Man’ meets a burglar called Cobb (a name that’ll resurface in a later Nolan movie), he ends up being dragged deeper into something he thinks he can solve. This early mystery already indicates he wants us to interact and connect differently with what’s in front of us.

This mystery theme continues in the cult classic Memento [2000], a film that flipped the conventional unravelling of a story by doing everything in reverse. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a man who’s trying to hunt down his wife’s killer but there’s a problem with remembering specific details because he also suffers from short-term memory loss. Leonard tries to confront his issue with tattoos which give him information about what he learns each day but then, again, he also has to retrace every step, each day. The film is very clever exploration of memory, relationships and mystery but the key here is all about the mind and how it both limits and alters perceptions if it wants to.

People often forget that 2002’s Insomnia, starring Al Pacino,  Robin Williams and Hilary Swank, is Christopher Nolan, maybe because it’s a remake of the 1997 film by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg, but there’s no denying its original edge gives this crime thriller a unique, intense perspective. Pacino’s LA homicide detective is trying to hunt down a killer but there’s a twist; the sun never sets where they are in Alaska and so the lack of sleep, and a somewhat mysterious town, plays tricks on the mind as he grows more and more tired on his pursuit. 

2006’s The Prestige is unashamedly about illusion and the power of belief. The premise is two magicians Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale), trying to out-do each other and beat the talent of the other but, of course, pushed to the limits by their obsession, thus being another story of intensity with clever twists. It’s also Nolan’s first team-up with Michael Caine, a man who’ll filter through most of what’s to follow but always with important, focused fatherly roles.

Next up is the The Dark Knight Trilogy and while it isn’t specifically sold as a study of the mind, it’s always been clear that Christian Bale‘s Bruce Wayne was psychologically scarred by the death of his parents when he was a child. Troubled enough, in fact, to train and dress up as a giant bat to fight crime. While on the outside the idea of Batman could easily be considered ludicrous, Nolan’s vision is refreshing as he delves into the dark memories, vivid desires and concentrates on Wayne’s obsession with thinking people need him, as he tries to do what’s right for his city of Gotham.

Right from Batman Begins [2005], we see Nolan’s love for tricks of the mind because while any villains could have been implemented, we get Cillian Murphy‘s magnificent Scarecrow, a man with a toxin drug that alters perception and only lets people see their deepest, darkest fears set out as reality. This is a huge choice and not done lightly. The theme continues in The Dark Knight [2008] with Heath Ledger‘s unforgettable Joker, a man who’s beyond the edge of sanity but also expertly bringing chaos into the every day. Despite the Joker’s undeniable unpredictability, Wayne/Batman is more than aware of how he gets inside his head and that’s what gets to him, almost even more than the violence. In fact, even when Aaron Eckhart‘s Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, it’s all about what Dent ends up believing because of the Joker, it’s a play on everyone’s brutal vulnerability.

Obviously we’re not finished because in The Dark Knight Rises [2012] Wayne is fooled by the entire image of Bane (Tom Hardy) being the bad guy because of his connection to Marion Cotillard‘s Miranda who is, in fact, playing the long con as Talia al Ghul, and out for revenge for her father. This is a huge moment for Bruce, who’s lost trust – and even faith – with himself and she takes full advantage. When you add in Anne Hathaway‘s superb Selina Kyle, a women who’s also struggling with trust issues and scarred by the world around here, all these moments are just skim the surface of the relationships that revolve around throughout the trilogy.

With Nolan’s history so far, it seems like it’s a long time before we get to Inception [2010] but this film always feels the one he always wanted to make. Leonardo DiCaprio is on fine form as Cobb, the same name and occupation of the character in Following, in a lead role with a dark secret and an extreme power that allows him to delve into the subconscious mind of other people. What could seem fantastical is, in fact, absolute modern genius and even on repeat viewings, Inception takes you on a journey that literally steps inside the mind and entices, inspires and even makes you think ‘what if’ of your own thought process.

While on the surface, no narrative-link intended, 2014’s Interstellar is about the human race trying to escape a dying planet and find new life, it’s really about a relationship and also following a path that’s been taken once already but will be taken again due to the commitment of father Cooper, played expertly by Matthew McConaughey. But beyond the father/daughter story-line, Cooper has to deny everything he believes in and convince himself what he’s doing is the right thing. The mind is pushed beyond the rational and it’s a prime example of what people do when they believe in something bigger than them. It’s also about how Murphy (Jessica Chastain) deals with connection throughout the personal changes in time. The whole story is emotional, intellectual and visually stunning, especially in that final third where we plunge into another dimension of existence.

So here we are in 2017 and Nolan’s vision of Dunkirk that opens in cinemas on 21 July. While we know the situation we can expect, I noticed that they’ve been descriptively (or specifically) coy because while thousands of British and Allied troops are surrounded by enemy forces, trapped on the beaches and with their backs to the sea, I wonder if the story is more about the fall out, the people coming back to save those who believe they’ve got no way out.

Dunkirk could be Nolan’s most human, most genuine exploration of people and how very real, traumatic events effect the mind. The real-life Dunkirk can never be underestimated, or forgotten, because of the thousands of people involved on every side and in every way. I’m already sure the reality we’ll witness will hold all the intensity to immerse the viewer, it was a unprecedented historic moment and now is an important time for it to be shown to the widest possible audience, let’s hope it resonates both in the hearts and minds of those experiencing it for the first time.

Dunkirk opens on 21 July 2017.

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