Directed by Sam Mendes. Starring George MacKay, Dean Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott.
The Plot: April 1917. The brutal trench warfare of WWI rages on. British Privates Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) are tasked with a difficult and possibly impossible mission. They are to set out deep into apparently abandoned enemy territory and reach another unit that is about to go over the hill and assault a German line. It will end in disaster, risking the lives of 1,600 men including Blake’s brother. Time is not on their side. As the minutes and hours tick away till dawn, they venture into dangerous situations that risk their very lives…
The Verdict: Sam Mendes has never been a director who takes the easy path when it comes to directing. He pushes himself, his cast and his crew to greater artistic achievements with each film whether that’s American Beauty, Jarhead or Skyfall. But even those acclaimed films can’t quite prepare an audience for what lies ahead in his remarkable new WWI film 1917. With an end credit to his grandfather Alfred who fought in The Great War, 1917 is a film that is both deeply personal for Mendes and grand in its ambitions. Much like Peter Jackson and his vivid documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, Mendes is interested in bringing the receding memories of WWI into the 21st Century for a new generation to re-live in all its glory… and horror. This is a film that challenges audiences to put the popcorn to one side and keep up with the characters as they face a seemingly insurmountable task amidst the muddy, rat-infested trenches and fields.
Much will be made of the astonishing technical achievements of the film, which was inspired by Mendes’ interest in using long takes. While there have been ambitious single-take films like Russian Ark and the innovative Victoria, 1917 is too large-scale a film to shoot in a single take. With a nod towards Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, the film is shot and edited to appear as a single real-time take – even with a time jump at one point. What this does is give the film a ticking-clock immediacy like Dunkirk, but ramps up the tension to heart-stopping effect at frequent points. Mendes is interested in making the audience the silent and invisible observer on the same journey as its characters. The audience is with them every step of the way, creating an involving cinematic journey where the camera prowls around its characters and ever-changing environment, from watery trenches with bloated corpses to a field with downed cherry blossom trees to the shelled-out ruins of a town.
It’s immersive filmmaking which grabs you from the opening shot and doesn’t let go until the palm-sweatingly tense climax. Mendes’ key collaborators here are essential in constructing the film’s unique look, from Dennis Gassner’s production design which finds even beauty in the ugliness of war. Hiring an editor to invisibly join all the seams from his long takes is no easy task. Hence, the presence of Dunkirk editor Lee Smith who skilfully tied the three timeframes of that film into one at the end. It’s ace cinematographer Roger Deakins who must surely win an Oscar though. In one jaw-dropping sequence, he lights the ruins of a town in flare light and raging fire as if it was there was an apocalypse about to happen. This is war as hell on earth, where death is one bullet away. The risk of our characters dying weighs heavily on our minds, affecting the outcome of the lives of the 1,600 other young men.
Extolling the virtues of the impressive craft on display can only go so far though. Mendes is wise enough to counter-balance the battle scenes with quieter, more intimate moments that re-assert the film’s anti-war message about keeping one’s humanity in an inhumane war. We don’t know much about our two lead characters early on, but we get to know them on the journey and discover what they have to lose if they don’t make it. That emotional and narrative core is essential to keep the film relevant. MacKay and Chapman, two British actors who have come to prominence in recent years, certainly rise to the challenge and deliver gutsy and invested performances. While there are a number of familiar faces in small supporting roles, the film rests on their young shoulders and they carry it without showing any strain.
1917 is a hard film to fault. Mendes has constructed a personal film in meticulous detail that is entirely cinematic and deserves to be seen on the big screen for maximum impact. Its ticking-clock urgency makes it a film that is as much about its characters as the devastating impact of war. When Steven Spielberg read the script for the film (Dreamworks produced it), he said that people won’t be able to breathe. There’s a double perspective to that. It’s such a tense film, pumped up by Thomas Newman’s evocative score, that people will be holding their breath and may end up shell-shocked. They may also be holding their breath because of the superlative technical side of the filmmaking, along with those more humane moments that touch the heart. 1917 is a truly outstanding film, perhaps the best of Mendes’ career so far. He has said that the experience of making it was like nothing else he’s ever done. The result is a film like nothing else anyone has ever done.