Director/co-writer Sam Mendes’ World War One feature follows Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) as they, under orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth), undertake a perilous journey across miles of enemy terrain in order to deliver a message that will call off a planned attack, since said attack is actually a German-set ambush and would result in a massacre that would see 1,600 men being killed, Corporal Blake’s brother among them. Travelling across No Man’s Land and through underground mines, farmhouses, bombed-out bridges, rivers and war-torn towns, the two soldiers find that time is against them, as well as the enemy forces who could be hiding anywhere, and they come face to face with some increasingly perilous situations as they attempt to remain steadfast in their mission and to prevent the loss of so many allied lives.
When discussing 1917, the first thing many of us will mention, the film’s biggest trump card and what the film has going for it the most, will surely be Roger Deakins’ cinematography and his work on the film certainly is the main attraction of the feature; making the bold decision to shoot the two hour film with a series of long takes, giving us a film that appears to be one continuous take – much like Birdman or Victoria, the latter actually being one unbroken take – surely can’t have been easy to plan and put together, but the maestro DOP (in collaboration with Mendes’ equally intelligent direction, I’m sure) pulls it out of the bag and films the incredibly long sequences with remarkable skill and talent, fluidly and smoothly moving us through a variety of both exterior and interior locations, moving the cameras through tight spaces and wide open vistas, and getting us marvelling at just how he was able to accomplish it all. And in addition to filming so much of it in single takes and getting the cameras to glide so gracefully, Deakins also makes sure to treat us to several gorgeous shots that truly impress and prove to be a feast for the eyes – the horrific images are juxtaposed to some tranquil shots and towards the end of the film, scenes that feature a town on fire present the audience with some particularly striking and haunting images that are captured so brilliantly by the well renowned cinematographer.
And going hand in hand with the magnificent cinematography and excellent production design, Thomas Newman’s score is also quite brilliant and it complements the visuals very well; at the beginning, it’s noticeably soft and tranquil when we see the soldiers resting under a tree but as the film moves on, it very efficiently builds up a tangible sense of dread and approaching danger as the boys move into enemy terrain and later on, it’s dramatic and frantic in the quickly paced scenes, bombastic in the now famous “running scene”, and there are also moments, particularly during the sequence set in the burning town, where the score is haunting and tense and overall, it is an ideal companion to the impressive visuals. So Newman’s music also helps to make 1917 a memorable experience and, thankfully, it’s never too intrusive or overused – only appearing when necessary and letting the silence speak volumes in the more tense sequences – and as for the sound design, well let’s just say that, as evidenced by the early scenes in the particularly muddy trenches, this has to be the “squelchiest” war film that I’ve ever seen!
Of course, as mentioned before, Sam Mendes’ direction also goes a long way to making 1917 such a technical triumph and his fine stewardship of the project, his logistical planning and execution of the impressive experience, is something that we must appreciate along with Deakins’ amazing camerawork; Mendes manages to create a feature that is emotionally resonant – occasionally hitting the heartstrings while also making us smile from time to time – as well as emphasising the horrors of war, not holding back with the violent and bloody scenes and making us squirm as we witness so many decomposing bodies (even skeletons at one point) buried in the mud of No Man’s Land, and he keeps the film moving at a good pace (though I have to admit that during the quieter scenes, I found myself wishing for the film to get back to “the danger”), there are a few unpredictable moments that will get the audiences on the edge of their seats (that RAT!), and, since he based the film on the stories that were told to him by his Grandfather, the film is clearly respectful of those who fought and died in the war and it’s touching how he dedicated it to his Grandfather – just as Peter Jackson did with They Shall Never Grow Old.
Acting-wise, there are only really two main performances to speak of as several other recognisable faces do have an impact but only show up onscreen for a few minutes at a time; Lance Corporal Blake initially appears as the more proactive of the pair as he’s the main one who’s assigned the mission, the one with a brother to save, and as soon as he begins the quest, he appears instantly determined to see it through and remains steadfast in his mission, though he occasionally tells a funny story now and then, and Dean-Charles Chapman is strong in the role, throwing himself into the part and displaying steely determination while also showing heartfelt emotion in his final scenes. On the other hand, Schofield initially appears more hesitant to undertake the mission and prefers to take a step back and to think things through a little more, suggesting a maturity beyond his years and clearly having a different personality to Blake, perhaps not all that initially keen to partake in such a perilous mission, but although he has his doubts, he gradually grows more determined to see the mission through and despite the horrible setbacks and the hellish ringer that he’s put through, he ends up showing much more resilience, courage and bravery than he initially displayed; with perhaps a meatier role than Chapman, MacKay is excellent in the part as he effectively shows that maturity beyond his years and clearly shows the trauma that his character’s going through and effectively gets us to feel everything that he’s going through – especially when you realise that he had to go through the whole ordeal simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time! Both of the principal actors give strong performances and surely must be given credit for taking on so much – having to go through such a physical ordeal and deliver finely tuned performances even during those notoriously long takes, always under pressure not to flub their lines and to always remember their precise physical directions.
Elsewhere, there are those few recognisable faces such as Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch and Adrian Scarborough and while they only have a minute or two of screentime, it’s nice to see them pop up and they play their parts very nicely – especially perhaps Andrew Scott whose disillusioned and apathetic Lieutenant character provides some unexpected dark comedy as he realises just how hopeless he finds the soldiers’ mission to be, halfheartedly “blessing them” before sending them over the top, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Colonel ends up giving the film the kind of tone that we don’t often see in war films as (SPOILER ALERT), instead of showering the soldiers with glory for a job well done, he simply dismisses them as he realises that their success is minor and that many lives will still be lost the next day; this is another example of how 1917 is a fresh addition to the war film genre in that, while obviously respecting all those who fought and died, it’s not overtly patriotic, hagiographic or emotionally manipulative, not full of that “we’re British and if we all stick together, we can survive anything” mentality, but instead it has more of a downbeat tone and emphasises the idea that although the war was complete with great victories, it was still a nightmarish ordeal where people lost their lives every single day, regardless of the sacrifices soldiers like Blake and Schofield made.
A magnificently immersive and gripping movie experience that boasts plenty of stellar cinematography, an excellent musical accompaniment, praiseworthy direction and production design, and a very strong cast.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Whew, a five star film in January – makes a change from last year when I had to wait until December to witness one!