Movie Review: ‘1917’

Director: Sam Mendes

Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Plot: A pair of Lance Corporals serving in France during World War I are dispatched to deliver orders to a Colonel who is about to send 1,600 soldiers to be massacred in a German trap.

Review: When reflecting on 1917 we cannot determine what the ultimate goal of the film-makers was. The first option is that they want to show how that the world wars were the closest modern man has come to creating hell on Earth, the second option being that they wanted to make a gorgeous looking film. Regardless of intent they strongly succeed in achieving both, but it then leaves us asking if this is a movie that we enjoyed more for the emotional journey or the technical aspects.

Sam Mendes has always been a visually powerful director, framing his performers in interesting ways and using bold, bright colour to build his world. Pairing him up with the legendary director of photographer Roger Deakins results in an expectedly stunning looking piece of cinema. It is beautiful from start to finish and will have every critic and film student drooling (apologies to the ushers for the puddle in the cinema).

If you’ve seen the trailer for 1917 you’ve actually been mislead regarding one of the biggest selling points of the movie. The trailer we watched after the fact seems determined to cut the movie together as a standard action movie with a big dollop of Marvel thrown in for good measure. The reality is that this movie is edited together to appear as almost one, long continuous shot with the events of the movie playing out in real time. We did see this before in Birdman, but rather than having the dark corridors of an old theatre to hide the transitions the soldiers of 1917 spend a substantial amount of time walking across wide fields and muddy battlefields. It’s much more difficult job to blend the seams. It’s an impressive viewing experience, and the sweeping camera shots create a disorientating, sometimes surreal experience.

The story follows Blake (Chapman) and Schofield (MacKay), a pair of soldiers who have been handed orders by a General (Firth), and they are to deliver these orders to a Colonel Mackenzie (Cumberbatch). The German forces have suddenly retreated and MacKenzie has given chase, determined to finish the conflict but unaware that the German command are laying a trap to wipe out battalions of British forces. Our heroes are working against a ticking clock and have to travel through the trenches, cross No Man’s Land, explore the German trenches, work through a farm level, a town level, a water level…it’s an episodic journey as Blake and MacKay overcoming one obstacle after another. Oh, and Blake’s brother is one of the potentially dead troops.

The off-hand nature of the last comment will clue you in to the fact that we felt a disconnect from the emotional beats of the movie. It’s a cold film, as you’d expect from the setting, but the occasional tug at the heartstrings as ineffective or cliched. This could be a response to seeing 1917 off the back of Jojo Rabbit, an incredibly powerful war film with substantially less realism, but want we remember most fondly from this epic is the visuals, not the characters.

Whilst we’re on the subject of characters we need to put the spotlight on a very, very annoying trend among epic war movies, something that was first notable in Saving Private Ryan and solidified with The Thin Red Line. In short, film-makers need to stop casting highly recognisable big name actors in one scene military officer roles. Often these roles are central to big, noteworthy scenes and it’s distracting when a famous figure suddenly appears for the 5 minute conversation. Colin Firth giving orders at the beginning of the film, and that’s fine as it adds weight to the importance of this plot device, but when they finally, FINALLY battle their way through nightmare landscapes and digging through dead bodies to find the Colonel and instead of tension of relieve all we can focus on is the sudden appearance of Benedict Cumberbatch with a moustache and a scar. Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden all pull the same trick, turning up for a day’s filming and being mostly notable for be recognised from previous roles.

As you’d expect, a film nerd like me is thrilled with the cinematography and editing on display and will be rating the film more on that than the emotional experience of this adventure. It’s important that we have war films focusing on the horror of large-scale wars to remind us what we should be working to avoid. But for those looking to connect with characters and have more on-the-nose pathos will find this a bit empty.

Rating: EIGHT out of TEN