‘1917’: Masterfully crafted, immersive, harrowing war drama

  • Movie Review
  • Tuesday, 14 Jan 2020

‘That Deakins fellow is quite clever. I can’t tell if it’s a giant coil of barbed wire behind you, or a regular-sized tangle of it right in front of us.’

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Benedict Cumberbatch

As grandfather stories go, 1917 is one powerfully evocative tale, at once an unflinching look at how hellish war can get, while offering ample evidence of the indomitability of the human will.

Rather than pound home its point about wartime horrors with Dolby-fied decibels, pyrotechnics and gore, it achieves its objectives by disturbingly recreating the aftermath of pitched battle.

As its protagonists pick their way through a ravaged French countryside, each tread of a mud-caked boot, or chitter of an overfed rat, or flap of a carrion bird’s wings – or, shudder, the soft sloshing sounds of bloated corpses bobbing in rain-filled craters – complements the visions of desolation and devastation to send a tremor down the viewer’s spine.

‘Keep your chin up, Old Boy ... that’s what they told me through basic training and by golly, I’m doing just that.’‘Keep your chin up, Old Boy ... that’s what they told me through basic training and by golly, I’m doing just that.’

Technically, 1917 is a masterful achievement in filmmaking – not just for the immersive re-enactment of a conflict that saw millions slaughtered, but also for its convincingly distressed lead performances, magnificent cinematography (resulting in a second Oscar nomination for Roger Deakins), and Mendes’s conviction and control in executing his storytelling choices.

Based on the World War 1 experiences of writer-director Sam Mendes’s paternal grandfather Alfred, 1917 has a fairly simple premise.

Two British Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman – hi there, King Tommen) and Schofield (George MacKay, 11.22.1963), are ordered to go on an urgent and highly dangerous mission: head deep into enemy territory to stop 1,600 of their comrades from charging into a German trap.

The film, already a Golden Globe winner for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Director (and nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director) unfolds seemingly as one continuous shot as it tracks the principal characters from a stolen nap in a quiet field, through friendly trenches on their way to a fateful mission briefing and then into the heart of enemy territory.

‘Wasn’t me, I swear – I only just set foot on this thing.’‘Wasn’t me, I swear – I only just set foot on this thing.’

In interviews elsewhere, Mendes has stated that his intention for telling the story in a real-time-like flow was because he intended 1917 to be more of a “ticking clock thriller” than a full-on war movie.

That thriller vibe is certainly present here, and it’s a strong one.

By focusing on Blake and Schofield’s journey and point of view, and eschewing typical dramatic structures of cutting away to approaching dangers and back, Mendes heightens the tension and desperation.

We see mainly what they see, fear the shadows as much as they do, wonder about the shapes advancing towards them, and share in the moments that startle them as well as revel in the small snatches of respite from their ordeal.

MacKay and Chapman grow into their characters as we follow them through the trenches and across No Man’s Land, effectively drawing us not only into their mission but also into their friendship.

(They are indeed the stars of this venture, the more famous names in the cast just cropping up now and then to propel the plot along and keep the proverbial British chin up.)

As our investment in these well-fleshed-out individuals increases, we become hopelessly ensnared in their mission, a near-impossible one conducted under such circumstances where even an act of humanity can have disastrous consequences.

It isn’t a comfortable ride, though some scenes – like a mad pre-dawn sprint through a burning town, or a sidelong dash through waves of charging infantry – will make you feel like cheering on the protagonists despite your nerves feeling like they’re being stretched out and plucked like guitar strings.

Yes, not a comfortable ride at all but one so involving and affecting that you will realise, once it’s over, just how shallow your breathing was for the last two hours.

And, as you breathe deeply for the first time in a while, you may find your attention drawn to 1917’s final image, a heartening reminder that rebirth and continuity are possible even after devastation on such a massive and unthinkable scale.

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Immersive, harrowing WW1 epic that will draw out your nerves and pluck them like guitar strings.

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1917 , Sam Mendes , War


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