Mark Kermode discussing Christopher Nolan, a master of film who uses memory as his magic.

Estimated read time 5 min read

Somewhere between the crowd-pleasing spectacle of Hollywood and the esoteric inventions of European cinema lies the work of Christopher Nolan, the London-born writer-director who next month will receive the British Film Institute’s highest honour – the fellowship. Hailed by the BFI as “a blockbuster auteur and champion of cinema”, five-time Academy Award nominee Nolan is tipped for success at last at the forthcoming Oscars with his recent Golden Globe winner Oppenheimer – a frontrunner for, among others, best film, best director and best adapted screenplay.

Nolan’s dark and contemplative three-hour film, which delves into the life of Oppenheimer, has surpassed the popular and upbeat Bohemian Rhapsody to become the highest-grossing biopic ever. This is a testament to Nolan’s skill in appealing to mainstream audiences. Surprisingly, many who were drawn to the existential themes of Oppenheimer also chose to watch Greta Gerwig’s whimsical Barbie movie, resulting in an unexpected box office success – Barbenheimer!

Nolan’s impressive talent for seamlessly blending sophisticated art with mainstream culture has consistently been one of his strongest attributes. I can vividly recall leaving an early showing of the superhero blockbuster Batman Begins (2005) and excitedly telling my friend and colleague Nigel Floyd, “That was like the most expensive independent film I’ve ever watched!”

From his made-on-the-cheap indie debut Following (1998) to his most recent blockbuster behemoth, Nolan has viewed cinema as both a magic lantern and a time machine, opting for narratives that shuffle time like a deck of cards. His breakthrough feature, Memento (2000, adapted from his screenwriter brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori), is an amnesiac thriller that uses a reversed-order narrative to reflect its protagonist’s inability to create and store new memories. Like its spiritual successor, Tenet (Nolan’s head-scrambling 2020 big-budget thriller in which contrapuntal time frames form a perfect cinematic palindrome), Memento assumes that any and all cinemagoers will, by the very nature of the medium, understand that time is reversible, flexible, artificial. Indeed, who has ever watched a Nolan film and not been intuitively aware that cinema somehow replicates the collage of memory – a random-access series of moving images that can be watched and rewatched, time and time again; faster, slower; forwards, backwards; ordered and reordered.

Christopher Nolan, left, on the set of Dunkirk with Kenneth Branagh.

The fundamental truth at the core of many of Nolan’s films is demonstrated in various ways, such as the altered realities of Inception (2010) where thrilling action sequences occur in the span of a van falling off a bridge, the fantastical time shifts in Interstellar (2014) where traveling to a distant planet results in changes to the crew’s ages and the protagonist facing his own existence, and the interconnected timelines (spanning one week, one day, and one hour) in Dunkirk (2017). The staggering success of these three films, collectively earning around $2 billion, serves as evidence that audiences are captivated rather than alienated by Nolan’s clever manipulation of time.

Nolan’s cinema is characterized by the concept of magic, specifically the magic that occurs during the filmmaking process. As a strong advocate for traditional film over digital, Nolan has made a deliberate effort to emphasize the importance of format in creating an immersive viewing experience. This has become a major selling point for his films, with audiences becoming highly knowledgeable about the different formats used, such as Imax for The Dark Knight (2008) and Oppenheimer, and even considering factors like frame ratios, image quality, and brightness (measured in footlamberts) when purchasing tickets for Nolan’s films like Dunkirk.

The fascination with the creative process brings us to the origins of cinema, when machines that appeared both eerie and magical created fairground spectacles through magic lanterns. It’s not surprising, then, that one of Nolan’s greatest (and most underappreciated) films is an adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 book The Prestige – a story set in Victorian London about rival illusionists that incorporates time jumps, teleportation, and the presence of electronic innovator Nikola Tesla (played brilliantly by David Bowie) into its captivating plot.

Andy Serkis, David Bowie and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige.

The Prestige (2006) is presented as a tragic love story and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the workings of magic. It takes us through the three carefully orchestrated stages of great illusions: the promise, the twist, and the grand finale. As we watch, we can sense Nolan’s passion for unraveling the captivating history of cinema itself, inviting us to join him in a captivating dance of illusion and deception. We are aware that it is all a clever trick, but we willingly suspend our disbelief in pursuit of a momentary taste of transcendence, united with others in a shared dream.

All titles can be rented on various platforms unless stated otherwise.

I am also finding enjoyment in other things.

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