People who love Christopher Nolan movies tend to appreciate them for the director’s epic, stadium-exploding spectacles and his tendency to combine action with many heady plot twists. I like Christopher Nolan movies for all those reasons too, but what I really appreciate about them is that the man loves himself a nice teatime. His films are full of immaculately manicured and coiffed heroes who tend to sport expensive suits, nice watches, and a level of deep sadness about women who’ve died in their proximity. They rarely sit down for a full meal, but they often pause for a quick cup of a tea and maybe half a sandwich, often while delivering some bit of exposition to another character. Once you start noticing the number of conversations that take place over dainty drinks and appetizers in Christopher Nolan movies, you simply cannot stop. He loves a small, civilized repast, especially if it involves a silver serving tray, and his universe is full of angsty men having a cup of a tea and a little something to tide them over till later.
As I haven’t had the opportunity to drug Nolan in the first-class cabin of a transcontinental flight and break into his subconscious, I can’t know much about his personal reasons for loving a dainty snack or two. But the reporting around him indicates that he loves drinking tea — to the extent that he carries a flask of Earl Grey on set and has an assistant at the ready to procure more for him at all times. What Hollywood excess! Of course, there’s a connection between a Nolan film’s fascination with mostly white, mostly male heroes who confront a collapsing social order and this drink and its accompanying foodstuffs, which are emblematic of a mostly white, mostly male, especially British, social order. It’s all very conservative with a small c and a small spoon. Bruce Wayne frets over the fate of Gotham with a silver platter in his lap. Leo explains his Inception heist at a Parisian café. The twinks of Dunkirk all long to get home and quietly drink some tea. Personally, I would love to partake in a cup of Earl Grey and half a finger sandwich across from Nolan; it seems quite calming. But because I can’t do that, and I also can’t watch Tenet yet, I made do by going back and cataloguing the long history of dainty drinks and snacks in Nolan’s universe. Pour yourself a cuppa and ponder what it all means with me.
Right at the beginning of Nolan’s first feature, we see Jeremy Theobald (as “the Young Man”) through a Dunkin’ Donuts window stirring himself some sort of beverage. Nolan, a mysterious figure, chose to highlight a coffee brand better known for its association with Ben Affleck than its presence in the U.K. From what I can tell, Dunkin’ made a failed attempt to enter the British market in the 1990s and tried again in the 2010s. The important matter is that this guy enjoys his caffeine but doesn’t have the means to buy the expensive stuff. That is, until he follows another man (who turns out to be a burglar named Cobb) to a fancier coffee shop, where the Young Man orders a coffee and a cheese sandwich he doesn’t eat, and Cobb enjoys an espresso (most later Nolan heroes tend to be Cobbs, including Leo’s Inception character also named Cobb). It feels meaningful that the entire Nolan-movie universe kicks off with two guys having a little midafternoon snack.
Following proceeds apace with a noir plot involving a fancy woman known as “the Blonde.” She has serious conversations with the Young Man over coffee, and Cobb and the Young Man meet up for a fancy dinner. When the Young Man freaks out over the possibility that someone they’ve burgled might see them at their establishment, he asks if they can skip dessert. “Yes, I fucking mind!,” Cobb says. Later, as they leave the restaurant, he adds, “I really hate it if I don’t get to finish a good meal with a cup of coffee.” This feels taken from personal experience. If you happen to have a dinner meeting with Nolan, do not make him skip his coffee over dessert. That digestive kick is important to him.
Since this is one of Nolan’s grimiest, least fancy films, when I first went back to rewatch it, I was worried that no one would pause to have a little sip of caffeine. But luckily, look at how Carrie-Anne Moss first enters the movie: Having a little something at a diner with her sunglasses on! Within the Memento universe, this establishes her as mysterious and cool. It’s also a tell that Moss is a lot more in control than she seems. If Guy Pearce were the one drinking the dainty caffeinated beverages, he’d be in charge. He really needs a tattoo to remind himself to buy some cups and saucers.
A murder-mystery remake of a Norwegian film set in Alaska and starring Al Pacino is an extremely not-dainty combination of premise, location, setting, and star. Even though Pacino’s character, an LAPD detective sent up to solve a murder case, can’t sleep for most of the movie, I couldn’t find any instances of his drinking coffee or tea on-camera (as with Pearce in Memento, maybe this is a sign that he’s spiraling out of control). But interestingly, Robin Williams, who plays the film’s sketchy, villainous crime writer, does drink from a relatively dainty cup in a crucial interrogation scene: Hilary Swank brings him what’s either coffee or tea (I’d guess coffee; that’s more villainous in the Nolanverse) as the police attempt to get a confession out of him. He evades them there, of course. In the Nolanverse, the guy with the nice cup is always in control.
Here’s where Nolan’s budgets really go up and he can start being as fancy as he wants. Case in point: this sumptuous platter that Alfred (played by Michael Caine, Earl of Grey) delivers to ultimate fancy man Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as he tries to recover from a bruising night of crime fighting. Fresh-pressed green juice on a silver tray? The ultimate combination of machismo and daintiness, especially since Bale goes on to drink it shirtless in expensive pajamas and it frankly gives off Instagay product-placement vibes. Anyway, the key to understanding Nolan’s version of Batman is that his Bruce Wayne makes sure he hits his macros by eating carefully arranged food on silver platters. It all flows from there.
Like Following, this is a movie about a less fancy man (Christian Bale, in this case) trying to figure out how a fancy man (Hugh Jackman) works his magic, though in this case it’s all very literal. The secret to Jackman’s success? Teatime! Actually, it’s a working duplication machine he develops with Nikola Tesla, but he meets Tesla at teatime in his Colorado hideaway, which looks like Town & Country doing a “steampunk chic” spread. (Before Jackman meets Tesla himself, the inventor’s assistant talks to him over tea at his hotel.) Bale, by contrast, spends a lot of time drinking beer in the movie, while Michael Caine has this very sad, un-dainty lunch when everything is falling apart.
The Dark Knight
Did you think this was the most grim-dark Batman movie and therefore wouldn’t have room to feature some nice porcelain? In a Nolan movie, there’s always room for nice porcelain! In a lengthy subplot at the start that I always forget about, Bruce Wayne heads to Hong Kong to acquire some such-and-such important plot thing, and, as a distraction, Morgan Freeman has tea with a powerful businessman with a nice spread overlooking the harbor. Later on, Bruce throws a fundraiser for Harvey Dent with some fairly delectable passed hors d’oeuvre and a sumptuous buffet. Harvey is uncomfortable in this space — foreshadowing!
If you’re a Christopher Nolan character, of course you choose to explain your whole subconscious-heist deal to the audience surrogate while wearing an exquisite suit at a little Parisian café. It even edxplodes in a beautifully controlled form once she starts to question the nature of her reality. But it’s worth noting that nearly all of Inception actually takes place over a somewhat civilized repast, since we first meet Leo DiCaprio’s character (named Cobb, so he loves a dainty meal) when he washes up at an aged Ken Watanabe’s place in limbo. There, Saito serves Cobb some gruel in a gorgeous bowl and saucer I would love to be able to order online, while Saito sits on the other side of the table next to a teapot.
We flash back to the sumptuous pitch dinner Cobb and his crew first gave Saito on their dream heist, but it’s notable that, in the later reality, we only ever see the teapot next to Saito from behind; it disappears when Cobb faces him across the table. I’m now convinced that teapot is crucial to untangling everything that’s going on in this movie.
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises is like that scene in Return of the Jedi when the Emperor tells Luke Skywalker, “Good, good, let the hate flow through you.” Except Christopher Nolan is Luke, I’m the Emperor, and instead of hate, I’m telling him to pull out all the stops on the dainty snacks. After a whole plane-jacking sequence that’s cool or whatever, the movie really kicks off with a fancy party at Wayne Manor.
The billionaire playboy is in hiding, licking his wounds after the traumatic, snack-free third act of The Dark Knight, so we meet the real hero of The Dark Knight Rises: Anne Hathaway (as “Can I just have fun and be Catwoman?”) in disguise as a maid serving up shrimp balls to the guests (not that dainty and therefore vaguely villainous) before she gets Alfred to let her deliver a big, important platter of food of some kind to Bruce. We don’t get to see under the cloche, but it does look as if Bruce is at least getting a nice little side salad. Later on, as Alfred encourages Bruce’s recovery, he returns with the customary green juice — now, crucially, with a little tea set included. The film’s villain, Bain, wants to upend the social order and doesn’t have any dainty meals, despite the comedic potential of giving a big, buff man a tiny, little teacup. Frankly, the inability of The Dark Knight Rises to allow that revolutionaries might want both bread and roses, in the form of dainty meals of their own, speaks to this movie’s limited political imagination.
What really drives this obsession home, however, is that the whole arc of Bruce’s character ends up curving toward his decision to kill off the persona of Batman but let Bruce live, A Tale of Two Cities–style, and escape into a different life with Selina Kyle. How does Nolan choose to represent that ideal life? As having afternoon drinks in a little Parisian café, where Alfred happens to glimpse Bruce and Selina across the way. This is the good life.
If The Dark Knight Rises ends with Bruce Wayne living Nolan’s best possible life, everyone in Interstellar is stuck in the worst possible one: not just because the Earth is dying and there’s little hope for the continuation of the human race but also because there are barely any good snacks left! A blight has killed off the major crops, like wheat and okra, leaving a large amount of dust and corn. Matthew McConaughey’s family still has a relatively nice breakfast spread going on, and he still totes a little cup while he drives around young Jessica Chastain and Timmy Chalamet. That’s a sign that he’ll be our order-restoring hero.
I can’t tell what’s in the cup, however, so either McConaughey’s supposed to be drinking hot water out of force of habit or caffeinated beverages still exist in this reality because the loss of coffee or tea crops is way too sad for Nolan to think about. (Later, Chastain as Murph uses a coffee filter to pour herself water at dinner, a sign that coffee may really be dead or just that the water is so dusty it needs to be purified to drink.) One food-related tragedy Nolan explicitly articulates: The withering food supply means people now eat popcorn at baseball games instead of hot dogs. Having the wrong snack at the wrong time? We are doomed as a species.
Once everyone gets to space, there isn’t much time for dainty drinking and snacking, but there are two crucial dainty-drink moments. In one, Matt Damon’s astronaut has a teakettle sitting on a table in his base, which is a giveaway that he’s actually more in control than he seems (classic Nolan scheming villain). In the other, Anne Hathaway drinks from a little metal cup in the spaceship while eating some sad space food. That little cup presumably contains some sort of fortifying substance. She is also the crew member who becomes most vital to carrying on the mission and therefore the good of humanity. Do not go gently into that good night without a little sip of something to help the digestion.
Obviously, a Christopher Nolan movie built around a moment of British national pride is going to be about men who drink tea and eat toast saving boys who wish they were drinking tea and eating toast instead of being stuck in this whole war thing. The first key moments of tea and snacks: Mark Rylance and Barry Keoghan immediately bring the shell-shocked Cillian Murphy a cup of tea when they rescue him on their boat.
Later, Nurses treat Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles to tea and toast with jam when they are rescued on a British ship, though tragically that ship gets blown up (the loss of tea, jam, and toast in that moment feels emblematic of what the Germans are destroying in the movie’s imagination). Finally, once Fionn and Harry do make it back to England, they sit in a train car with two mugs between them while cheerful commoners start handing drinks and food through the window. They may have retreated, but the moral victory — the chance to return to having a nice teatime — is theirs.
Like most Americans, I haven’t seen Tenet, and I probably won’t be able to anytime soon, but I would be remiss not to mention two key dainty moments in the previously released footage. First, there’s a press still of John David Washington holding an espresso and wearing a nice suit, which indicates that he’s our protagonist (also his character’s name is apparently “the Protagonist”). And in the trailer, there’s a glimpse of a scene in which Washington and Robert Pattinson sit down over some dainty drinks — coffee, I believe — while Pattinson explains the concept of “inversion,” evidently this movie’s fancy name for time travel. Pattinson dramatically unhooks the top of a jar of milk, which can only lead me to guess that he’s going to explain the concept of entropy by means of the classic analogy that you can’t stir milk out of coffee. (This is only a guess, but I’ve also read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Christopher Nolan!) Time only moves forward, toward more disordered states, unless of course you invent a means of reversing entropy, which would be a pretty cool premise for an action movie. It would also allow you to have even more control over your coffee and tea consumption, which I presume is the real draw for Nolan here.