‘1917’ is a virtuoso display of technical filmmaking craft, and while much noise is going to be made about the choice to make the picture appear as one seemingly long continuous take it shouldn’t be the only thing recognised.
For one, far from a gimmick, the approach makes the journey of the movie as personal and visceral as possible. More importantly, through his narrative, Director Sam Mendes goes to great lengths to underline moments of connection and hope too. A quality that gives the film its heart and should also be recognised.
Unlike many recollections of the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front, ‘1917’ opens with the Germans having abandoned their posts. It is a feint to lay ambush to a British advance and the story follows two British soldiers tasked to intercept the advance and avoid a massacre. As a result, they cover a lot of terrain and meet a lot of individuals in their desperate rush to save lives amidst a war that chewed many up regardless.
The British officers are played by some big names which won’t be spoiled here and they’re all trading on established personas from other roles that serve the picture well. Yet up-and-comers Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay make the film what it is with two moving and nuanced performances. As they walk along and talk, the dynamics of their relationship and their own experiences are gradually revealed. When they are thrust into sudden jeopardy we care because we really know them.
Roger Deakins, easily one of the greatest cinematographers in the history of cinema, does an amazing job, but sound plays an important part too and limited use of music serves to heighten emotional beats. Everything is in aid of seeing what it was like for these soldiers moment to moment and it is riveting stuff.
A certain set piece hinted at in the trailer will get your heart pumping and your head leaning forward in your chair. Not just because of what someone is about to do but because it has been masterfully explained why they would and that they must succeed. In a year where ‘John Wick 3’ was released, this may be the most effective action scene of 2020.
More than a harrowing and kinetic tale, ‘1917’ repeatedly reminds of both how humanity is lost in war and how it touchingly endures.
The first war of the industrial age turned farm fields to mud as machine guns ripped through hundreds of men and left them to rot in no man’s land. Barbed wire, rats and unexploded shells dotted the hellish landscape.
There was nothing natural, colourful or human in those trenches except the men left breathing. They cracked wise, held each other close and laid down their lives for their fellow man. ‘1917’ remembers this and asks us to never forget.