“Cold guy who makes cold films.” That’s how a Hollywood producer described Christopher Nolan to the LA Times.
‘Cold’, along with other pejoratives like ‘unemotional’, ‘clinical’, and ‘detached’ are frequently leveled at his films. I don’t buy it. His reign over the ’intelligent blockbuster’ market is in no doubt, but surely intelligence and heart can work side by side?
His breakout Memento (opens in new tab) in 2000 is marked by its narrative invention, with scenes unfurling backwards from the perspective of a protagonist who’s unable to make new memories as his brain reboots every five minutes.
Given the unique structure – and how deftly it’s coordinated – it’s unsurprising that it garnered the most attention. But behind the dazzle, there’s a painful story of loss and revenge, one that flips your perception of the characters. If you weren’t invested in the people, the twists wouldn’t register so keenly.
While Memento’s Leonard might be Nolan’s slipperiest protagonist, the director has never shied away from troubled heroes, and his films have attracted ludicrously talented actors: the success of Memento saw Insomnia (opens in new tab) bag three Oscar-winners in above-the-title roles.
Would this calibre of talent show up (even when he was dipping his toe into comic-book blockbuster waters with Batman Begins (opens in new tab) ) if there wasn’t a significant amount of drama to chew on? And frankly, with actors like Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Marion Cotillard at the top of their game, there are always plenty of feels to go round.
While The Dark Knight Rises (opens in new tab) might have been the most outwardly emotional of his Bat-movies – Caine’s lip-wobbling stairwell moment, Batman’s childhood revelation to Gordon – its predecessors were no slouches. Batman Begins added pathos to Bruce Wayne’s orphaning (take a bow again, Michael Caine), and TDK threw in a surprise death that left several primary characters grieving.
And if you were too busy trying to second-guess The Prestige (opens in new tab) , you might have missed the poignant meditations on double lives and obsession that stand out long after the final reveal.
And, for me, it’s the film that’s often considered Nolan’s coldest that is probably the most emotional: Inception (opens in new tab) . It’s also his most complex, plot-wise: a mille-feuille of narrative layers abound requiring the audience to take a leap of faith to stick it out. But it pays off in spades.
You might’ve come to see Paris fold in two, but themes of parental absence, suicide, reconciliation and growing old with (and apart form) the one you love add a sniffle-inducing back note to a thrillingly realised sci-fi world.
Even though the story necessitates a great deal of exposition, you’re always hooked in via Cobb’s terrifying and – yes – emotional connection to the subconscious mission.
And judging from the Interstellar trailer, with its enigmatic voiceover and stoic tears from Matthew McConaughey, I’m going to be enthralled all over again.
Nolan’s films are always technically impressive, tightly edited and make few concessions to the slow. But there is always a rich vein of emotion underscoring the technical virtuosity, a sensitivity to match the scale.
Or is it just me?