Jacob Richardson | 7/01/2020
A visceral, emotional, intense masterpiece that will have you on the edge of your seat with your eyes firmly glued to the screen.
It’s 1917 (duh) and the Nazis have just pulled back from their trenches according to reports - to newly fortified defences. Deep in enemy territory, however, 1,600 Allied troops don’t realise the scale of the new defences, and convinced their enemy is on the run they plan to attack at dawn. That is, unless two young British soldiers can reach them beforehand, and deliver a message to save their lives.
Directed by Sam Mendes, 1917 is presented as effectively one long take (although this illusion masks a number of hidden cuts). In the lead up to release, this directorial decision tended to take centre stage in a lot of reporting, to the point where one may fear it is gimmicky. You need not worry though; Mendes uses this trick to ratchet up the tension to 11, and in doing so only uses the long take grounding to further heighten the suspense one experiences watching this race against the clock story.
1917 is at its heart quite a simple story, and one intensely insular. Indeed, Mendes never leaves the side of Schofield (George Mackay), our lead who anchors the piece. So while Schofield’s journey takes him through trenches, plane crashes, battlefields and more, it still feels like you are grounded in an individual experience, rather than looking at the macro picture of it all. That serves to exacerbate the drama of the piece, because as an audience we can now place ourselves at the heart of these great events. It also adds a sense of realism, undoubtedly aided by the informed perspective Mendes brings to the piece with his personal familial connection to the plot. More than anything in recent memory, indeed since Saving Private Ryan, 1917 feels undeniably real.
It is also a beautiful film. Roger Deakins does the cinematography here, which means it is pretty much guaranteed to be incredible, but some of these shots even still manage to surprise for their impact. A long tracking shot towards the end of the film, with Schofield running perpendicular to a charging allied force, is truly breathtaking, as are a number of earlier moments through no-man’s land and in trenches mid-demolition.
As the film’s primary lead, Mackay does a tremendous job aiding the atmosphere of the piece and creating a believability that drags you through this character’s immense task. It isn’t a showy role, and it is unsurprising that so far the awards season hasn’t seen nominations go his (or the secondary lead, Dean Charles-Chapman) way - but one should not for a moment conflate this as being down to the quality of the performance. Mackay and Charles-Chapman deliver performances wholly in service of the incredible story, and as such almost tend to meld into the background of that achievement more so than stand out from it.
There are a raft of smaller roles, mimicking the relatively transitory appearance of various characters in this plot. They stand out less so for the quality of the performance or the impact on the tale and more so for the quality of the actors themselves playing them; a veritable who’s who of British talent. Mark Strong, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott (AKA the Hot Priest), Richard Madden and many more crop up for their share of the screentime.
In the end, 1917 is stuffed full of gimmicks. It’s all presented in a single long take. It’s full of A-list British actors in effectively cameo roles. Cinematography is glorious, and done by Deakins. But it never feels gimmicky. It never feels like Mendes loses sight of what he is trying to say, or more importantly how he is trying to make the audience feel. 1917 is a masterpiece, delivering tension in spades and utterly immersing the viewer in a way few, if any, other war movies have been able to achieve.
1917 is truly an incredible piece of filmmaking, and an incredible film.