sat 19/09/2020

1917 review – immersive, exemplary war film | reviews, news & interviews

1917 review – immersive, exemplary war film

1917 review – immersive, exemplary war film

Sam Mendes makes his most personal film to date – and one of his most accomplished

Young men on a mission: Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay in '1917'

The greatest war films are those which capture the terrifying physical and psychological ordeal that soldiers face, along with the sheer folly and waste of it all –  Paths of Glory, Come and See, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, most recently Dunkirk.

The greatest war films are those which capture the terrifying physical and psychological ordeal that soldiers face, along with the sheer folly and waste of it all –  Paths of Glory, Come and See, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, most recently Dunkirk. Sam Mendes’ 1917, which has just won two Golden Globes and could well triumph at the Oscars, joins their ranks.

Inspired by the stories of his late grandfather, who fought in the First World War, Mendes has forged a film that combines the contrivance of a race-against-time thriller with the verisimilitude of documentary, astonishing technical achievement with bravura performance. The result is an agonisingly tense, immensely moving and unusually immersive experience.

And as the debate rages about the growing role of streaming platforms like Netflix in film production, Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins offer a sterling reminder of the value of going to the cinema – of the edge-of-seat excitement and full-blown emotion that can only be elicited by an expertly crafted film on the big screen.

It takes place over a single day and night in France. The British command has realised that an apparent German retreat from their front line is in fact a trap – and that two battalions, totalling 1,600 men, are about to walk into it. The sombre General Erinmore (Colin Firth, pictured above) entrusts two young lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), whose brother is amongst those in danger, and Schofield (George Mackay) with the perilous mission to trek across no-man’s land and deliver a warning message to the gung-ho Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that will avert a massacre. 

The much-heralded conceit of the film is that it follows the pair in one continuous shot. In reality, Mendes and Deakins have choreographed a series of long takes, stitched together to seem one. It remains remarkable and highly effective, the camera almost never leaving the company of the main characters, creating the thrilling, frightening, wholly believable sense that we’re with them every step of the way. And as they progress from the open graveyard of no-man’s land to the abandoned but still dangerous German trenches, from the inadvertent fallout from an aerial dogfight to a burning town in the dead of night, most audiences will quickly forget how the action is being shot, giving themselves over entirely to this singular journey into hell.Mendes centres his film on the relative unknowns Mackay and Chapman, around whom he’s assembled a heavyweight cameo cast of Firth, Cumberbatch (pictured above), Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden. His lean script (with co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) replaces the customary, tired ‘stiff upper lip’ with a range of emotional survival mechanisms – whether it’s Blake’s chipper jokes and stories, Somme survivor Schofield’s laconic, head-down pragmatism, the bitter cynicism of Andrew Scott’s lieutenant, or MacKenzie’s blinkered determination for a final, heroic charge, which Cumberbatch brings to life with every ounce of his froideur. 

The young stars are superb, their performances requiring precision choreography and endurance, as well as emotional nuance. What Mackay endures and expresses, in particular, reminds me of DiCaprio’s lauded turn in The Revenant; his nocturnal scenes with a young Frenchwoman hiding in the ruined town (Claire Deburcq), offers a beautiful moment of still humanity amid the chaos. That nocturnal scene is also one of the highpoint of Deakins’ work on the film, with an orange-skied, hallucinatory quality that evokes Apocalypse Now.

Composer Thomas Newman’s ever-present score shifts from atonal hum to touchingly lyrical, adding hugely to the film’s momentum and its depiction of men people trapped in a living nightmare, spurred on by camaraderie and instinctive heroism. 

The young stars are superb, their performances requiring precision choreography and endurance, as well as emotional nuance

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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