Sunday, 12 January 2020

Review: 1917

Cert: 15 / 119 mins / Dir. Sam Mendes / Trailer

Well even as early as its opening weekend, what more can be said on the film everyone is talking about? After much anticipation (and coincidentally just in time for awards-season), Sam Mendes' gruelling First World War epic 1917 has finally arrived on our screens.

The hype - it is both relieving and delightful to note - is justified.

April 6, 1917. In the British trenches of northern France, Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are tasked with a vital mission, delivering a message to cancel a planned attack that would see 1,600 soldiers walking into a German ambush. The route needed to accomplish this in time will see the pair moving on foot across no man's land, through (hopefully) abandoned enemy territory, and open countryside where the war is being fought more chaotically and without lines in the dirt. Using no more protection than they can carry, the most important tools for Blake and Schofield are their wits and the will to survive...


I must confess from the off that I enjoyed 1917 from a more technical perspective than as an immersive journey, despite how well the film achieves the latter. Chapman and MacKay blend into their roles instantly*1, whereas appearances from more distinctive actors such as Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch are more likely to elicit an 'oh, look who it is! jolt from the viewer. But the star of the show is really Mendes here, his auteur-like presence looming over the production in the very best of ways. Because of the situation our leads face, there are lengthy stretches of 1917 with no dialogue, where physical and empathetic acting come to the fore, along with the direction required to achieve this.

The film's USP is that it's presented as a single, continuous shot*2, an approach creating an escalating intensity that's hard to achieve under the normal run of things; Mendes makes it look - if not quite effortless - completely natural. And I admit to spending a lot of the movie marvelling at the imagined camera-setups, rather than becoming lost in the story. This didn't quite 'pull me out' of the proceedings, but there was always a faint disconnect where I knew I was watching a film. I imagine normal people (you, dear reader) will not be hampered by this.


In the film's opening moments, the sense of reveal achieved through moving the camera backwards to track our heroes is outstanding, as the intricacy and scale of the continuous sets becomes apparent. The nature of the story means that most of these setups are only used once, in real-time as the film progresses. The quality of the Dennis Gassner's production design here is staggering. And although he'd already set his own bar immeasurably high, cinematographer Roger Deakins really has out-done himself. The more visually-minded viewer will lose count of the number of shots which would look amazing as framed prints.

This was always going to be more of a sensory journey than an emotional one, but 1917 fares well on both counts (as long as the emotions you're onboard for are fear, desperation and anaesthetised isolation). The ongoing survival quest paired with a race against the clock is a cinematic halfway-house between The Revenant and Dunkirk; this film shares the best qualities of both.


What's perhaps most affecting in the long-run is that the film isn't about any pivotal event in the war, it's a collection of the stories told by Sam Mendes' grandfather Alfred; it's that things like this played out every day across France, with men trying their damnedest to stop or at least survive the industrialised slaughter one way or another while the war was directed from afar.

Perhaps most impressively, 1917 achieves all of this without exploiting the visceral horror of warfare (Hacksaw Ridge) or resorting to mawkish sentimentality (War Horse). That's a rare phenomenon with this subject matter, and something to be treasured in itself...

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Dunkirk, The Revenant and if you're a film nerd, Birdman.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.
Although definitely check it out in a cinema if you have the opportunity

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
This is the best I've seen Chapman and while MacKay is fantastic as usual, I think he's yet to bring us his best.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.
Plenty opportunity.
No excuse

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Tivik is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 When Blake describes his brother (twice) as "looks like me, but a bit older", I genuinely hoped we'd later see Dean-Charles Chapman in that role too, but with lifts in his shoes and an obviously stuck-on moustache. As it turns out we get Richard 'Cardboard' Madden, instead making the character completely unrealistic in a whole raft of new ways... [ BACK ]

*2 It's not, of course. The film comprises around 12-15 (depending on which articles you read) shots, meticulously stitched together to appear as a single take. And the good news is that you can play 'spot the join' without taking anything away from the final movie, even if Sam Mendes would prefer that you didn't. I mean in short, don't tell the audience that this is the feature then expect them not to think about it during the film, yeah? [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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