Review – 1917 (2019)
Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Claire Duburcq, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden
While war has provided fertile ground for filmmakers for a long time, historically there has been a much greater focus on the Second World War than the First. World War II occurred during the height of the Hollywood studio system while World War I occurred during the early years of industrial filmmaking, before even the advent of sound. From a storytelling perspective, World War II was a neater war, possessing a clarity of good and evil which the murkiness of World War I lacked. The recent centenary of the Great War, however, has seen more attention being given to that conflict. As its title suggests, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a First World War film. However, it is not really about the War. While set on the Western Front, it does not give any indication of why the conflict is being fought or of the immediate context of the events. 1917 isn’t about history. It is about an experience, and it is a masterclass of immersive storytelling.
In a break in the fighting on the Western Front, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are called into a meeting with General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The German troops have fallen back and Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is preparing an all out assault on the retreating enemy. However new aerial photographs have shown that the Germans are, in fact, falling back to a newly formed front and MacKenzie is about to lead 1,600 men into a trap. With the telephone lines having been cut, the only way to get the message through in time to avoid a catastrophe is for Blake and Schofield to deliver it to MacKenzie on foot.
In the press and marketing for 1917 much has been made of the faux-single shot approach employed by director Sam Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins, no doubt in order to promote the immensity of the technical achievement to awards voters. The trumpeting of this approach is, however, a bit of a shame because more important than the technique is the effect. Had you not been told it was the case, when you are watching 1917 what is striking is not the fact that you haven’t seen an edit for a while, it is the feeling of immediacy, the strange sense of spacial awareness and the overwhelming immersiveness of the film which impacts you. The consciousness of how this is being achieved takes something away from it.
We have seen the single shot film before, but it has usually been reserved for smaller dramas taking place in contained spaces (for example, Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman took place almost entirely in a Broadway theatre). 1917 has all the scale and action set pieces you would expect of a war film, adding significant complexity to what is already a very challenging way of realising a story. No stylistic gimmick, the seeming continuity of the shot is integral to the experience of the film. 1917 wants us to experience unbroken space and time. The requirement that we watch people travel gives a real-time feeling to the events even though the film compresses roughly one day into just over two hours. Similarly, the space that they journey through feels vast because we are required to move through it with them. As the carefully choreographed camera turns and looks you become aware of the full 360 degrees of the space they are in in a way that you don’t usually feel in a film.
While much of the praise for the film will rightly go to Roger Deakins, whose fluid camera moves in and around the action with precision so as to still find beautiful images amidst the chaos, the production design by Dennis Gassner and his team is just as important in making this world feel real. We see the carnage left behind by war, the wreckage and the bodies. So many bodies. We notice the difference between the Allied trenches and the German trenches and, without words, it speaks volumes about the comparative preparedness for these battles.
The visual approach marries effectively with what is a simple narrative. 1917 is less about theme and story than it is experience. Our focus is on the immediacy of Blake and Schofield’s experience, this mission against a ticking clock, rather than on larger historical context. Blake and Schofield are not particularly close. Blake has been chosen for the mission because his brother is among the soldiers in danger of walking into the trap which his superiors believe should give him greater motivation to complete the mission. Schofield was chosen because he was sitting next to Blake at the time. Blake is more earnest and wide-eyed, Schofield more cynical, seemingly having experienced more of the war. Their odyssey gives the film a road movie structure and, as is traditionally the case, their journey is a personal one as well as a physical one. This episodic structure also allows for a strong cast of cameos. The likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong make brief appearances as officers, with their star presence opposite our comparatively unknown leads effectively reflecting the authority of their superior rank.
1917 is probably the most ambitious film of Sam Mendes career, but his extensive background in the theatre (he won a Tony last year for directing The Ferryman) has served him well with the result being a uniquely immersive action spectacle. The film is dedicated to the director’s grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, who fought in the trenches.
Review by Duncan McLean
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