1917 (2019): Review

I love movies. Gosh, I love movies.

Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves may have proclaimed those words, but I have co-opted this as a placeholder for what I want to say about Sam Mendes’ latest release, 1917. Of course I have more to say, but wouldn’t that be an uncharacteristically succinct review from myself?

No such luck, I’m afraid. My thoughts about this movie have been swirling around in my head for six hours now and they’re about to be splattered all over this webpage like a bullet to the heart.

1917 tells the story of two soldiers tasked with delivering a message to a battalion who have planned an attack on German forces for the next day. With a time-sensitive, life-threatening mission on their hands, these two soldiers must fight tooth and nail to intercept the attack and save multitudes of soldiers from a deadly ambush.

With a premise like that, you could easily have written this off as just another World War I movie. I wouldn’t blame you. Then comes the directorial input.

Mendes’ decision to place the film in real time and have the film look as though it unfolds in one continuous take was certainly a bold one that even shocked master cinematographer Roger Deakins when he first read about it in the script. To say that it paid off would be a colossal understatement.

War movies typically try to place you in the mind of the solders as they encounter perilous situations and horrific psychological trauma. 1917 does this, of course, but the long takes truly lock you into this experience and deep immersion is the result. You’re with these characters for two hours and experiencing everything that they do as it happens with no opportunity to release yourself from its clutches. Everything is precise, meticulous, and set up so that you’re on this journey with them, viscerally feeling everything they do. The movie is packed with moments like this, that feel more like virtual reality than any movie I’ve ever seen. You feel yourself gasping, cringing, leaning forward in your seat, trying to calm the anxiety that swells inside of you.

Having the movie be in real-time definitely helps the intended effect that Mendes wanted. Every single step these characters take could be their last, every sound they make could alert the enemy, every second that passes could bring something new to the table. And by letting us be a voyeur into this, only seeing what the characters see for the most part, it gives us a sense of unease. There are moments where the camera pans around them, allowing us to see what’s behind them seconds before they turn around. It’s one of those experiences where you tense up and long to shout at the screen for them to protect themselves before it’s too long. The creeping pace really does immerse you in this hell-scape and it’s one of the tensest experiences I’ve had at the cinema for a long time.

Roger Deakins cannot be praised enough for his work on this film. He’s likely our greatest living cinematographer and he continues to prove why. There is one scene that I think will be etched in my brain forever due to his talents, and I won’t spoil it but if you’ve seen the film you know which one it is. (Hint: it’s not the one from the teaser trailer, although that is also a remarkable scene.) Deakins cleverly plays with his angles here, choosing where to position the camera and how to move it so we stay parallel with our protagonists. Likely drawing on Paths of Glory and Atonement for inspiration, the long takes are truly masterful, effectively using the background space of the screen to add to the raw, unflinching world of battle in a way that is subtle yet powerful. His use of natural lighting to accentuate the time-sensitivity is genius and no doubt would have created a plethora of production issues due to having to do numerous takes with the same lighting and having to portray the course of a single day.

Mendes’ praise also needs to be piled on top on him in large heaps like shrapnel from a collapsed building. Not only his decision to shoot the film in such a way, but the execution is flawless. The blocking of the actors, the building of tension, the setups and payoffs, everything Mendes touched turned to gold with 1917. He’s already proven himself a capable director, having won an Oscar for American Beauty and produced what I think is the best Craig-era Bond film, Skyfall (also with the assistance of Mr. Deakins), but 1917 is his crowning achievement, and I’d love to see what he could do top it if possible.

The sound work on this movie is incredible, as is to be expected with immersive war films. Every single bullet fired feels like a shot to the heart, every explosion invokes nothing but sheer terror, and even the sound of the squelching mud and crunching footsteps helps to unnerve you as you realise that anything can be their downfall and you’re on the edge of your seat watching it all unfold hoping that nothing they step on blows up or any of the bullets fired hit them. Exceptional work.

The script is the most pleasant surprise of them all, though. Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Mendes ensures that the technical innovation isn’t the only worthwhile thing to focus on. To follow these soldiers for two hours means we have to feel connected to them, we have to like them and their dynamic and that’s something 1917 accomplishes with aplomb. Blake and Schofield strangely feel like people we know, and their relationship is created instantly, unlocking a key part of the film: allowing us to care.

Here’s the part I’m least looking forward to talking about, it’s obvious comparisons to Dunkirk. It’s already happened and it’s going to continue happening. A war film edited by Lee Smith that plays with the idea of time to convey the horrors of war? Checks out. What Dunkirk purposefully did was alienate us from the characters by never really building up development or relationships, potentially as anti-war statement about the disposability of soldiers during wartime. Just a theory, but it’s interesting how 1917 went for the exact opposite approach and nailed it.

For a war movie to be character-focused is a dream come true. For it to display technical mastery, a new way of telling that type of story with actual stakes, and make us care for the characters as individuals rather than as a microcosm for the entire army, is staggering. 1917 rarely puts a foot wrong when dealing with these characters and every single gesture, every single line of dialogue spoken enriches them and makes us want to follow them and make sure that they are safe.

Of course, these characters are going through some things, and that requires a lot from their portrayers. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman give delightful performances and manage to convey completely different portraits of soldiers in war. Chapman’s Blake is the one assigned the mission, as his brother is part of the battalion and it’s mentioned that he’s rather good with map-reading. MacKay’s Schofield is his unwittingly chosen partner, who follows his best friend into the depths of the horror to protect him and the lives of 1600 soldiers. Chapman’s range is a pleasant surprise, having only seen him in Game of Thrones and The King. He manages to deliver a spirited performance through his character’s jokes and anecdotes, while also switching to a serious display of determination without missing a single beat. His emotions are clear on his face and he does a great job of selling them.

But George MacKay has to be the standout here. He went from being an actor I’d seen in a few things and thought he was good, straight to ‘I am going to watch him in anything he does from now on’. He’s that good. Giving one of the best performances of 2019 (and probably 2020), MacKay shines as the unknowing tag-along in a race against time to save the lives of many. MacKay goes through a lot in this movie and you can physically see the weariness on his face and through his physical expression. Honestly, it’s mastery of the craft and it’s a performance I’m going to be thinking about for a while. His range is spectacular and he sells every single moment exceptionally and his lack of awards love is baffling, especially when the film is garnering praise and, for me, he’s a large part of why it works so well. He’s a conduit for our fear, hesitation, and our emotional journey which is something that needed to work well for the film to succeed. Immersion is key and MacKay provides something to hold onto during this film. I will never stop singing his praises for a mature performance that signals the true start of a tremendous and long career.

1917 boasts superlative technical craft controlled by masters of industry, a solid and effective script that glides along the real-time pacing and absorbs you into the world, and a duo of terrific performances that work at evoking the tension and fear war films are supposed to thrive on. One of the best films I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t wait to see it again.

1917 is in UK cinemas nationwide now!

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