Twenty years ago, Sam Mendes won a hatful of Oscars – including Best Picture and Best Director – for American Beauty. This year, he looks set to repeat that trick with 1917; an all-in-one-take, tense, thrilling, rigorously cinematic World War I drama that’s an automatic must-see on a big screen (ideally in IMAX).
The plot is simplicity itself. On the Western Front, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are given a dangerous mission to cross no-man’s land and various occupied areas, to deliver an urgent message that will save thousands of British troops from falling prey to a German ambush. Tonally, there are hints of Dunkirk, in the way it throws you into the action with little background for the characters, and also Saving Private Ryan, in that Blake has a brother who is among the imperilled troops they hope to save. However, the real-time device makes this very much it’s own beast.
The film is utterly immersive, and technically speaking an absolute marvel. However, unlike genuine one-shot films like Russian Ark or Victoria, 1917 has a few digital joins to make it appear seamless (much like Birdman). Even with the digital joins, the film makes a very deliberate decision to be not one take but two, by having a character knocked out cold then awaken during the night. Presumably this was just so that greatest living cinematographer Roger Deakins could show off more of that incredible fire-at-night imagery that he and Mendes utilised to such tremendous effect in Skyfall.
Speaking of Deakins, his work here is quite extraordinary, and I expect he will also pick up an Oscar. The afore-mentioned night sequence begins with the camera passing a dead sniper in a building, and out of a window into a war-ravaged town, with shadows moving eerily amid the flames and ruins. Mendes and Deakins have thought through the film so well that every set piece – from trip-wire rigged abandoned German trenches, to aerial crashes, corpse clogged rivers, troop charges and more – all give new meaning to the word visceral.
In fact, my single, rather nit-picking criticism of the film – and on the surface it’s an absurdly ironic one – is that it is just too proficient, too ambitious, too clever. The film is too good to fully draw me in. As someone with considerable knowledge of what it takes to put something like this together, I spent much of the film thinking about where the crew would be, how they would have achieved particular angles, and just how annoying it would have been had a single element of a take gone wrong (one memorable story about a malfunctioning cigarette lighter is already doing the publicity rounds). Whilst thinking about all this, watching the film and being immensely impressed by it’s technical prowess, the consequence was I didn’t get as drawn into the (very good) performances, both by the leads and the bit players (which include the likes of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Madden, and Mark Strong).
To be fair, the tragic horrors of war are powerfully depicted, with much of the narrative inspired by stories from Mendes’s grandfather Alfred, who was a messenger in the conflict. But there were only a few moments in the film where I ceased to be aware of the production logistics – the scene with the French woman and her baby for instance, and (thankfully) much of the final act. At these points, I became genuinely emotionally engaged, and I did leave the film stirred and moved.
All of which leads me to conclude I probably need to give this a second viewing. However, I must also report that my eldest son, who saw the film with me, did not think about the production process at all whilst viewing, and found the entire experience completely absorbing. For that reason, I would add a caveat to my caveat, in that perhaps it isn’t a criticism that will affect most viewers. Either way, 1917 is an absolutely superb piece of work which I highly recommend, and could well be considered a classic in the future.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content Warnings: Strong language, violence, gruesome imagery.