Directed by: Sam Mendes. Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay. Runtime: 1h 59 min. Released: December 25, 2019 (limited).
Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a technical marvel, made better with breathtaking cinematography (by Roger Deakins) as it tells the story of two young British soldiers. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) take on a mission deep in enemy territory to stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap set by German forces. The direction here by Mendes is flawless as he leads an innovative effort that immerses the audience into its real-time story, as it’s designed to look like one continuous take.
There are obvious spots where editor Lee Smith might have cut and started a new take, but when the film is happening, I couldn’t notice any edits and it looks seamless. The real time storytelling makes us feel like soldiers as we see every part of Blake and Schofield’s journey. The one-take aspect never feels like a gimmick, but some aspects of the film underwhelm.
The pacing doesn’t allow time to really develop the characters, so there’s a detachment there at the beginning. They do get better towards the end, but there’s not an emotional investment I’d anticipated. There are also stretches where there’s nothing really happening – and there’s a lot of walking. The actors carry the film well, however. Dean-Charles Chapman is good as Blake, the one who wants to get the message to the battalion because his brother’s also there. The random British stars (I won’t spoil them) that show up could add enjoyment to some, or be distracting to others.
George MacKay really the carries the weight here, looking exhausted by the end of the ordeal. His character and performance is why I felt emotionally invested by the end of the film, as he gets some needed character development. The performances here are natural, too, and the way it plays out feels like it could easily be a stage play and we have front row seats for the realities of war it depicts.
This is a war film that’s about the experience, similar to Dunkirk in the way it immerses in the event in lieu of immediately developing its characters. In 1917, some uneventful moments come with the experience of war. The camera feels like it’s always rolling and it can’t cut out MacKay simply climbing a hill, it would take away from the mystique. Mendes puts us in the trenches, but the uneventful moments make the film’s greatest moments more rewarding.
There are strong scenes of suspense like when the pair don’t know if they’ll be shot by German soldiers, even though they’re told they’ve retreated. A chase by an enemy soldier that ends with a swim is absolutely enthralling. The scene where Schofield steps out of the trenches as explosions go off behind him is the best moment here and showcases the direction, writing (also by Krysty Wilson-Cairns), cinematography and score by Thomas Newman. To give cinematographer Roger Deakins a bit more credit, the way the town of Écoust is lit up by fire and flares is incomparable.
I like this film because of the five or six amazing sequences that thrill. The humanity in war is also shown well once we get to know these characters. The film’s also about bravery like every good old-fashioned war film, and there’s enough action interspersed with the mundane to maintain interest.