Directed by Sam Mendes.
Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Claire Duburcq, Richard Madden.
Running time: 118 minutes.
After nabbing two Golden Globes last week for Best Picture and Best Director, and receiving nods in nine Bafta categories two days later, it seems Sam Mendes’s ‘one shot’ First World War survival thriller is making a serious charge toward the top prizes this awards season. And few would bet against its success at the Oscars next month either — after all, 1917 is exactly the kind of the film the Academy seem to go for: a powerful historical epic driven by technical splendour and awash with beauty, atrocity and rousing emotion.
The ‘one shot’ movie — or, at least, the illusion of one — is nothing novel in cinema, of course. For over seventy years, filmmakers have utilised clever cutting to lure audiences into believing they’re watching a single, continuous shot — from Hitchcock’s Rope from 1948 to Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2014 Oscar-winning Birdman.
Yet, despite what many of the early reviews say, Mendes’s film is quite clearly divided in two by a very distinctive, deliberate, mid-movie cut (and, therein, some nifty edits masked by CGI and clever lighting). But it’s a move that does very little to impede upon the sublime product of a director’s audacious vision and the technical and logistical brilliance of a cinematographer like Roger Deakins.
But for all its practical wizardry, the greatest trick Mendes pulls is keeping 1917 from falling victim to its own ambitious style of filmmaking. In what could quite easily descend into neat, showy gimmick remains, first and foremost, a human tale about men travelling through almost unimaginable horror. The story, and indeed the camera, follows Lance Corporals Blake (Chapman) and Schofield (MacKay), two young soldiers assigned with what is quite literally a life or death mission. Sixteen-hundred allied troops, including Blake’s older brother, will soon charge on what they believe to be retreating, depleted German forces.
Intelligence relayed by General Erinmore (Firth) however, indicates that the enemy is luring the men directly into a trap. Phone lines have been cut, meaning the message to halt the assault must be delivered on foot. And so Blake and Schofield must leave the trenches and venture into the terrifying unknown, across body-ridden no man’s land and through vacated but no less dangerous German territory, to prevent a massacre.
Its narrative path appears simple enough, one that invokes parallels with the perilous task laid down to a team of American soldiers in Steven Spielberg’s landmark WWII drama Saving Private Ryan. But Mendes’ movie is a complex, intense, immersive experience in its own right: a powerful, profound journey deep into the hellish heart of war. With co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Mendes’s story moves intricately between sapping feats of physical exhaustion and striking, spiritual odyssey as his protagonists’ plight defies cliché at every turn — the film’s most impactful moment, for instance, occurs off camera.
The work of both Thomas Newman and Deakins operate in much the same way, with the former’s score audibly mirroring the characters’ journey from the pulsating real to the affecting surreal, while the latter’s eye captures a landscape imbued with both beauty and brutality. One minute we’re thrust mercilessly into the boggy, corpse-filled craters of no man’s land. The next we’re gliding gracefully through grasslands dusted with cherry blossom. And, as with all great works of art, the strength lies in the detail, and between the hoards of flies buzzing away above decaying flesh and the melancholia reflected in the sorrowful gaze of youthful eyes, the grim horrors of war are handled with meticulous intricacy and arrive with uncompromising regularity.
But if realism is what Mendes is after, it is somewhat undermined by the choice to cast several members of Britain’s acting royalty in the film’s numerous supporting roles. The compelling power of MacKay and Chapman’s performances are enhanced by their relative mainstream unfamiliarity, while having the likes of Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch show up with varying facial hair in what are glorified cameos do more to threaten the film’s immersive pull than any of its stylistic contrivance.
At times, it also feels uncomfortably nationalistic, spending little time adjusting the early picture painted of German forces as a sneaky, ruthless evil, defunct of both mercy and morality. Intentional or not, in these troubling times, it’s a rather ill-judged, irresponsible outlook to take, particularly in a film that so powerfully presents war as the machine that so cruelly denied an entire generation a long and prosperous existence.
Above all, however, 1917 an impressive work of terrifying, visceral art that exists on levels of both screen grandeur and personal, passion project for Mendes. At once cinematic and theatrical, it’s a story that asks its audience to journey across the entirety of their own emotional landscape just as its characters cross a vast, metaphysical one. We might only be less than a month in, but few films this year are likely to be as bold as 1917, and even fewer likely to be as engrossing.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.