Christopher Nolan: An epic storyteller who ponders the great questions

Christopher Nolan is a director who has pondered important questions throughout his body of work, but had never won a Bafta for directing until Sunday’s ceremony.

The London-born filmmaker was previously nominated for a total of five Baftas for his dream-bending thriller Inception and Second World War epic Dunkirk.

He went into the Sunday ceremony as the favourite to win for Oppenheimer – for which he has been given three nods across the adapted screenplay, director and best film categories.

Accepting his directing award, Nolan paid tribute to the nuclear disarmament programme and the efforts to bring “peace” – and thanked the film’s backers “for taking on something dark”.

Nolan did walk away with a Britannia Award for directing in 2010, an honour that was given in Los Angeles by Bafta up until 2019, but has not won a coveted Bafta prize in London.

The 53-year-old has also had six Oscar nods before exploring the life of the “father of the atomic bomb” J Robert Oppenheimer, which would see him reunite with Irish actor Cillian Murphy.

Batman ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ IMAX Premiere – London
Director Christopher Nolan. (PA Wire)

Murphy told GQ in February that Nolan gets his family to drop off his scripts to keep it “secret” and for reasons of “tradition” while also speaking how his set feels like a “private, intimate laboratory”.

He added: “There’s no phones but also no announcement, everybody just knows. And there’s no chairs because he doesn’t sit down. Sometimes a film set can be like a picnic.”

However, despite often being nominated and never winning during awards season, things are starting to look up for Nolan as this year – the Directors Guild of America (DGA) gave him the prize for outstanding directorial achievement and he won a Golden Globe for best director – motion picture award.

Nolan, born in London to a British father and American mother, read English at University College London (UCL), choosing the school because of its filmmaking facilities.

It is also where he met his future wife, Emma Thomas, with whom he has four children and runs a production company, Syncopy – and has worked with across his filmmaking.

Christopher Nolan receives BFI Fellowship – London
Cillian Murphy and Tom Conti attend the BFI Fellowship Annual Dinner, honouring Christopher Nolan (James Manning/PA)

He said he never felt alone making films as Thomas “always saw things the same way I did in terms of the importance of the medium”.

While at UCL, Nolan was president of the film society and produced short films while studying before getting his big break, making his directorial debut with 1998’s Following.

Two years later Memento, which saw Guy Pearce as a man suffering memory loss, desperately trying to discover who attacked him and killed his wife, unlocked Hollywood for Nolan.

The film received two Academy Award nominations, for best original screenplay and best film editing, as well as being a blockbuster success.

Following the well-received Memento, Nolan directed Insomnia, a psychological thriller starring Al Pacino as a detective on the hunt for a killer in an Alaskan town.

It was another critical and commercial smash, the beginning of a gilded run for Nolan.

In 2005, he made the first film in the Dark Knight trilogy, with Christian Bale playing the titular role in Batman Begins.

That was followed by drama The Prestige in 2006, which starred Bale and Hugh Jackman as two rival magicians in Victorian London.

The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises followed in 2008 and 2012 respectively, with both films grossing more than one billion US dollars worldwide.

In 2010, Nolan directed sci-fi action film Inception, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a professional thief who steals ideas from victims’ unconsciousness.

Nolan received his first best director Oscar nomination for 2017’s Dunkirk, which depicts the Allies’ retreat from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk during the Second World War.

He did not receive nods for Interstellar, which shows Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway going on a mission to find a new planet to live on after the Earth becomes uninhabitable, but the blockbuster was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning in 2014 for visual effects.

It also saw him reunited with his brother, the co-creator of TV series Westworld, Jonathan Nolan, who he worked with on Memento, The Prestige and The Dark Knight films.

His time-warping Tenet, starring John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, was one of the few releases for cinemagoers during the pandemic and was hailed by critics – but did not give Nolan any Bafta, Oscar or Golden Globe nomination. It did take home an Academy Award for visual effects.

A devotee of the big screen experience – Tenet was shot on 65mm and large-format Imax cameras and had been delayed a number of times, before the espionage thriller became one of the big films of 2020.

His latest project, Oppenheimer, was confirmed in 2021 and is based on the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning book American Prometheus: The Triumph And Tragedy Of J Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and the late Martin J Sherwin.

UK premiere of Oppenheimer – London
Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy and Florence Pugh (Ian West/PA)

Barbie was the highest grossing film of 2023, but Oppenheimer has led during awards season, getting 13 Bafta nods.

Aside from showing the downfall of the director of the Manhattan Project, who came under fire due to his activities with socialist groups, the film also dives into the moral questions of the atomic bomb and shows a slow-motion scene of the impact of the devastation wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

However, it has not all been smooth sailing as the premiere in London meant that stars including Robert Downey Jr, Murphy, Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh staged a walkout when the Hollywood union Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (Sag-Aftra) called a strike.

Downey Jr took home the supporting actor Bafta at the ceremony in London.

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