Review: 19178 January 2020
Sam Mendes’ epic one-take war film is an indelible, commanding experience built on some of the most incredible craftsmanship that cinema can offer.
For better or for worse, in film, I’ve always found that I love a passion project. I love when a director builds something from scratch, that only they could have created, and pours their entire heart and soul, all of their energy and effort, into what goes up on the screen. It looks like 1917 is that movie for writer-director Sam Mendes.
In interviews, Mendes has spoken of his grandfather who fought in The Great War, and how he delivered messages on the Western Front. Now, coming off two James Bond movies, the director has chosen to make this film, the story of two (alarmingly) young men who carry a message through abandoned German lines. Their goal is to reach a battalion of 1600 men, among whom is one of the boys’ older brother, and stop them from engaging in an attack that is in fact a lethal German trap.
With this setup (and practically no exposition), 1917 becomes a series of escalating trials for the two soldiers. There’s something almost mythical about the way Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) endure increasingly terrible ordeals on their way to delivering the message – like descending into deeper and deeper levels of hell. And clichés about war and purgatory aside, the world this film inhabits is truly horrific. Death is a constant presence, and not just insofar as men are dying. In this world, there are long-dead remains everywhere: fallen beside the trenches, piled up in ditches, flowing in rivers – soldiers, horses, and civilians alike. The scenery varies from cramped trenches and tunnels, to eerily normal countryside, to barbed-wire covered muck, to blasted, bare hellscape. Production Designer Dennis Gassner has done incredible work in the past on Skyfall and Blade Runner 2049, and his sets in 1917 allow us to bear witness to a tactile, living-and-breathing recreation of a terrible history.
And before Schofield and Blake leave the British trench, it becomes clear that the people here are just as beaten down as their surroundings. The film’s cast is a deep bench of reliable male British acting talent – Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott (hot priest!), Mark Strong, Richard Madden – all portraying cynical, battle-weary men gritting their teeth through brutal degradation and meaningless slaughter. The film’s two leads are just as powerful. Chapman is vulnerable and empathetic, and Mackay – unquestionably the star – is never short of absolutely captivating. With very little dialogue (there are apparently only 20 lines in the film’s last 45 minutes) his eyes carry a moving determination, and he captures a powerful sense of strain and desperation with his physicality, running and tripping and falling and leaping and heaving and collapsing and being knocked all over the place. What’s even more impressive is that neither of these young actors could have had a stunt double edited in to perform the film’s nail-biting action for them: 1917 is ostensibly one long shot.
Of course, Mendes and his team cleverly hide cuts throughout the film, but they are few and far between, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell you where most of them are. The film plays as a harrowing adventure, in real time, allowing for massive, stressful set pieces and meaningfully quiet moments alike. There are two ‘acts’ to this story”: one from afternoon until dusk; and another, after one of the soldiers is knocked out, that runs from night until dawn. It makes for an incredibly immersive experience – you breathe every breath with these characters, denied the relief that a cut would provide. In real time, 1917 forces you to feel every in-the-moment fluctuation between hope and despair. The film is not a slice of life, but a ‘slice of time’, dropping into a moment in history and letting it play out in all its brutal force.
Another effect of the one-take style is that the film makes a much more active viewer out of its audience. With no cutting to different angles, to the thing you’re ‘supposed’ to see, you find yourself constantly, anxiously looking for the threats that inevitably develop just out of frame. A landmine, a distant airplane, a German guard approaching with his rifle loaded – all may appear at any moment, the roving camera bringing it dramatically into frame. Indeed, the lack of cutting means the image is rarely static, and the constant forward movement is almost threatening in its relentlessness. The one-take style is inextricable from the tension of the film. It is a true merging of form and content. And it’s important to state as much, because it would be easy to laud 1917 just for the extensive planning and co-ordination required to pull off shooting the film this way – but it never feels impressive as a technical feat alone. It’s always in service of these soldiers’ journey. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. Suffice to say, though, that without editing to ‘save’ the film, the production team’s work had to be flawless – every day of the shoot.
Aside from its distinction as a technical marvel, the way the film is shot is also somehow incredibly beautiful. 1917’s Director of Photography Roger Deakins is one of the great masters working in any cinematic discipline today, and the cinematography here is a treat, even by his standards. There is striking visual after striking visual in this film, from stark limestone trenches in a lush green field to an inferno in a ruined French village that looks like something out of the book of Revelation. Of similar artistry is the film’s score, composed by long-time Mendes collaborator Thomas Newman (who is competing this year with his cousin Randy, who was responsible for Marriage Story’s wonderful music!), upon whom the burden falls to elevate the big emotional moments. Without much dialogue and with no visible editing, Newman’s evocative score is a massive part of what elevates 1917’s storytelling.
Ultimately, the synthesis of all of the incredible work put into 1917 is breathtaking. It is both a fantastic anti-war commentary on individual bravery and determination, and a visceral thrill ride. There’s a moment in the film’s climax where I was giddy; physically gasping in disbelief – the performance of the lead actor, the stunning image, the lofty emotional stakes, the crashing score, the sheer scale of what was on screen – it blew me away. What Sam Mendes and his team have achieved here is the product of a massive group of filmmakers pouring all of their talent and skill into one project – there is little else like it. One of the best of the year.
1917 is on general release from Thursday the 9th of January.