Current Issue #479

Film Review:
1917

Golden Globe-winning director Sam Mendes takes time off from James Bond blockbusters with this profoundly personal wartime tale that proves a technical marvel – albeit one with heart.

Mendes (serving as director, co-producer and, for the first time, as a credited co-writer) was told the source tale here by his grandfather, and the material has been expanded by this filmmaker and Krysty Wilson-Cairns into a simple but often hugely powerful story of two young soldiers facing almost certain doom in their quest to save some 1600 fellow combatants from a German ambush.

Much has already been made about the narrative here appearing to take place all in one unbroken take, but it’s an illusion (unlike movies that are genuinely, and somewhat anti-cinematically, all executed in one endless take, like Russian Ark and 2015’s Victoria). There are sneaky, disguised cuts and other optical trickery throughout, but no matter, because after a while you stop looking for the joins and the sleight-of-hand and become totally engrossed in the human side of it all.

It’s spring 1917 in northern France and a pair of already-exhausted young soldiers, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are introduced half-dozing in a field. Summoned to an audience with General Erinmore (Colin Firth in a cameo), they’re given a mission to hand-deliver a message to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment and, judging by the grim looks in the bunker, the top brass don’t expect the pair to survive. But there’s no question that they must go, because it’s a direct order and due to the fact that Blake’s brother is amongst the men in the firing line.

After long trips through cramped trenches and a quick turn by Andrew Scott (of Sherlock and Fleabag) as the obviously shell-shocked Lieutenant Leslie, who thinks the duo mad, Schofield and Blake then venture forth into No Man’s Land and the original German front. These scenes are sweatily suspenseful, but then there’s a whole terrifying sequence that chronicles the aftermath of a dogfight and, again, you keep wanting to admire the amazing technical wizardry in what you’re seeing but, instead, you’re swept up into the story.

Later, in the bombed-out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein, the destroyed buildings and red night sky can’t help, at this moment, but make you think of the bushfires currently ravaging this country, even if much of this moving sequence was safely filmed at Shepperton Studios.

There are stars here, but the best-known names appear only in bits, with Mark Strong in splendid form as sympathetic Captain Smith, prestige character player Daniel Mays as Sergeant Sanders and a surprise appearance at the very end (and yes, he’s in the trailer, so remember to look away). But this is really all about the unfamiliar Chapman and the more prolific Mackay (from How I Live Now, Pride, Captain Fantastic, Ophelia and True History Of The Kelly Gang), both of whom the camera follows closely through lengthy, unnervingly quiet interludes where you breathlessly wait for something terrible to happen.

There have been many (so, so many) films about WW1 before, but never one quite like this, Sir!

Reviewer Rating
/10

1917 (MA) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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