1917 is a simulated one shot World War I masterpiece from director, Sam Mendes, whose credits include: American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall. While set during World War I, Mendes sidesteps the cliches to present a sprawling depiction of the dire circumstances of a two-man mission, instead of getting bogged down with the meagre rations and futility of trench warfare. Most representations opt for the claustrophobic and mind-altering affects of a war is hell scenario. Mendes takes it over the top and through the battlefield, possibly inspired by the acts of valour and rescue mission in Hacksaw Ridge.
The film follows two young British soldiers with an impossible mission to convey a message that will save the lives of 1,600 men. Focussing on a soldier’s random selection as a plus one for a dangerous mission, we too are transported to the age on a vicarious journey across war-ravaged France.
1917 follows in the wake of the harrowing war experience that was Dunkirk, a divisive film from Christopher Nolan. One of Dunkirk‘s main criticisms was that it was a struggle to connect with the visceral ensemble war drama thriller, which seemed to prefer technical brilliance and sensory bombardment over resonant storytelling. The films have some parallels in this respect as 1917 keeps a similar perceived distance from its leads, instead opting to stitch the film together as if captured in one shot under the watchful eye of Blade Runner 2049’s Roger Deakins.
Led by the ever-dependable George MacKay is otherwise probably best known for Captain Fantastic, he becomes a conduit allowing us to get a firsthand account of what it could have been like to undertake such a mission. He’s joined by the instantly likable Dean-Charles Chapman as if their mission involved one ring to rule them all. The two enjoy workable chemistry as a budding friendship develops during what could ultimately be their final objective. The story focuses on these brave young soldiers, enriched by some British top brass including: Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden and Mark Strong.
“RUN AWAY, RUN AWAY!”
While the ensemble are respectable and deliver solid performances given the focus and nature of the visuals, the focus is not on performance. 1917 is a technical masterpiece, owing to the film’s unique perspective and free-flowing cinematography. Cleverly composing shots on a seemingly continuous shot, the planning and meticulous detail is what makes 1917 so special and impressive. It seems like no editing was involved simply because the stitching is seamless. Using production values, wardrobe and design that takes you back in time with a set that seems to extend for kilometres in every direction, it’s a marvel – taking a page from Dunkirk for situational grounding and Birdman for swirling continuity.
1917 is game-changing for war movies, but it’s not perfect. In terms of story, there must be a better way to effect a vital communication than a long distance game of broken telephone. The premise is a little flimsy under duress, but the realism and command urgency of the battlefield anchor the last hope situation. While it starts off a little stagey with Midsommar style full lighting that takes away from the true grit of the illusion, you soon adjust to the revolutionary shooting format. While the characters are serviceable and purposefully downplayed, the leads could have had a few more contact points to make the journey more emotionally resonant and gripping as well as experiential. You do rally behind the do-or-die mission but the subtle pay off could have been even more powerful and transcendent. In spite of its flaws, 1917 is largely redeemed by its artful, original, fluid, gut-busting and epic take on World War I warfare.
The bottom line: Spellbinding