Dunkirk, Baby Driver at opposite ends of the emotional scale

Dunkirk, directed by film-maker Christopher Nolan, is an epic war movie.
Dunkirk, directed by film-maker Christopher Nolan, is an epic war movie.PHOTO: WARNER BROS
Kevin Spacey (above left) and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver.
Kevin Spacey (above left) and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

Dunkirk (PG13, 107 minutes, now showing, 4 stars ) is the war movie you would expect from a British film-maker like Christopher Nolan - it celebrates British traits like the stiff upper lip, the proper way to queue and the restorative powers of tea (amplified if accompanied by bread and jam).

There might be a drinking game some day around the number of times a cuppa is shown or mentioned, but it takes technique for these qualities to be showcased without the whole show becoming unintentionally comic.

The Dunkirk evacuation of more than 300,000 British, French and other Allied troops, freeing them from German encirclement, is today encrusted in decades of mythologising. Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, while acknowledging the magnificence of the rescue, warned against the human tendency to spin defeat as victory, by saying that "wars are not won by evacuations".

Nolan agrees, sort of. His hard-luck troopers (nameless and played by Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles and Damien Bonnard) are stung by shame, while others, such as civilian "little boat" volunteer Dawson (Mark Rylance) and fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy), provide the heroics. But the real hero, Nolan wants to say, is the British spirit of quiet self-sacrifice.

It is Nolan's control of the visuals that makes this among the most harrowing of war films. He and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, 2014) stay away from the usual war-movie foreshadowing - German faces and points of view are never shown. They also steer clear of the recent fondness for gory injuries (Hacksaw Ridge, 2016).

Nolan's soldier characters burn, drown and are blown up by a force that hits from off-screen. The spectre of death is ever-present and impersonal, and the non-stop dread it brings will leave anyone wrung out by the end.

Baby Driver (NC16, 115 minutes, now showing, 4 stars) is the opposite of Dunkirk - it's a small-scale heist movie and its overriding emotion is joy, not fear. But writer-director Edgar Wright and Nolan are both British and old-school cinephiles who treat soundtrack and editing as the equals of dialogue, acting or action.

Fans of Wright's work (Shaun Of The Dead, 2004; Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, 2010) will see plenty of Wright-isms here - the smash cuts, action cut to rock beats, nods to pop culture. That visual wit is now laid over a crime thriller.

All of his movies have been musicals of a kind, but this movie makes it more explicit by making the lead character's iPod playlist the bed on which everything lies.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a wheelman for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey), who teams him with different crews for hold-ups. He is never without his white earphones and what he hears is what the audience hears.

The beats provide the cues and the lyrics say what the tight-lipped Baby will not. Luckily, he has the adventurous taste of a college radio-station deejay - he's plugged into glam rock for bank robberies, Motown for a trip to the cafe and alt-rock when stealing cars.

Wright's movies deserve far more success than they have received and this work's spectacular car-chase action and gun battles might finally do the trick.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2017, with the headline 'At opposite ends of the emotional scale'. Print Edition | Subscribe