It's hard to imagine a world where Harry Styles isn’t, well, Harry Styles. And, yet, that’s what thousands of movie-goers are going to have to do this summer when they go see Dunkirk. The star is making his big screen debut in the Christopher Nolan film based on real events, but it looks like Styles isn’t playing a real person in Dunkirk, and he’s definitely not playing himself. Instead, he plays Alex, one of the many young British soldiers stuck on the beaches of Dunkirk during WWII.
Very little is known about Styles’ character, or really about any character in Dunkirk. In fact, the film features an all-star cast including Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh, but none of the characters feature prominently in the trailers. Turns out, all the secrecy and vagueness is by design. "We're not trying to oversell Harry in the movie for the specific reason that it's an ensemble," Nolan explained in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. The film relies on multiple characters to set the scene of the evacuation of Dunkirk, which involved around British 400,000 soldiers. And, while it's unclear if any characters are based on real people, it doesn't look like it. (Nolan is the only credited screenwriter, and many of the characters are not credited with full names, suggesting an absence of real life models.)
In fact, Nolan has explicitly stated that his goal with Dunkirk was not to recreate the experiences of specific men, but to drop the audience directly into the war. It's a film driven by the visual narrative, not character arcs. "I think the visual nature of the storytelling is something I'm excited about," Nolan told Fandango. "The challenge of taking on what I call a present-tense narrative — that is to say we don't learn a lot about the people we're experiencing this with." As the characters were kept somewhat vague on purpose, they didn't need to be based on real people.
No doubt creating his own characters for the film also allowed Nolan the opportunity to make history more entertaining. After all, Dunkirk is a highly anticipated summer blockbuster. "We've really tried to throw the audience into that [the race for survival] with a degree of intensity — with a respect for history but with a sense of entertainment and a sense of a blockbuster," Nolan said in a Dunkirk featurette, via People. I'll put it this way: Styles' character not being based on a real person means fans won't be able to find out if he dies or not before they see the movie. So, the suspense over his Dunkirk fate continues.