More than just a technical experiment, 1917 is a remarkable, engrossing action-drama that looks and feels epic in every sense.
It’s 1917 (shocker) and World War One is at its height. British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McKay) are commanded to cross no man’s land, enter what appears to be abandoned German territory and warn a platoon of thousands not to attack – as the abandonment is an elaborate trap.
If you’ve read about this film, you’ll have heard about the way it’s been shot – it’s presented as one long, continuous take (as in no edits, cuts or changes of focus). This has been done for real before, and it’s only right to point out that 1917 wasn’t one two hour take – it’s been cleverly edited to appear to be. But this doesn’t matter in the cinema!
This is because that immersive look and feel – even if you didn’t know, care or notice it was supposed to be one take – more than achieves its goal. The amazing cinematography of Roger Deakins and editing of Lee Smith seamlessly stitches together for a visually astounding experience. Deakins (who won an Oscar for lighting on Blade Runner 2049) is the master of his craft.
Mendes directs and co-writes with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and his work with the actors interacts with the technical elements perfectly, while the script’s “less is more” approach works because the mission is so simple that exposition is limited – most conversations add humanity and colour to the young soldiers and their journey.
As a war often shown in monochrome (for obvious reasons) and rarely focused on in cinema, WW1 is never usually perceived as more than mud, brown and green clothes and grey skies. Deakins takes that as a personal affront and a challenge, and so while those colours are everpresent, they seem more lucid, for example troop uniforms standing out amid the mud and detritus.
As the day turns to night and then day again, Deakins lights incredible contrasts amid the gloom, none more so than an unforgettable night in a destroyed French town. While one character runs through ruins, everything is lit by temporary flares of phosphorus, and the impeccable set design and thrumming score make for a scene I’m still thinking about days later – light and setting are perfectly judged.
Smith’s job might seem pointless, but that’s absolutely not the case! He hides connections between disparately filmed scenes perfectly (sometimes you can tell where if you’re sad like me, but it was often impossible to judge where scenes ended and began). You’re swept up into the experience (there’s no better word for it) and this unconventional work is instrumental.
Thomas Newman’s score helps ramp up some uncomfortable tension – while it often appears similar in tone and effort to Hans Zimmer’s almost modernist, brutal Dunkirk score, Newman paints heart and quieter moments amidst bombast and thudding orchestra. The use of a song at one point is perfectly judged too, providing a pause and highlighting the human centre of the events onscreen.
McKay and Chapman are perfectly cast because they’re young enough to believably play the conscripted troops, but are also both great and largely unknown actors. McKay’s haunted eyes and expressive face portray reserve until a crunch point, after which his humanity floods out. He’s clearly a strong talent, with a couple of scenes – specifically in the latter half – perfect distillations of emotion and mood on the run, given the unimaginable stresses he experiences.
Chapman is more relatable given Blake’s understandable drive to save his brother from certain death, and the young actor is also more comedic, offering a nice contrast to Schofield’s more pessimistic worldview. The two have a great camaraderie and chemistry, and the script gives us plenty of time to invest in both as they experience more and more hardship together and apart.
One less positive element is the use of high profile cameos. These include Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, both of whom seen in the trailer, while three other established or younger British/Irish stars appear (it’s more fun to discover them in the course of watching, though let’s say you’ll probably recognise two if you’re fans of popular TV shows in the last few years).
I imagine without these names 1917 might have struggled to succeed as it has, and perhaps I’m being overly critical – but they take you out of the immersion, which is a shame. Firth and Cumberbatch play different flavours of arsehole posh commanders, which in WW1 meant men who could execute soldiers who disobeyed orders. The other cameos meanwhile are a mix of cold hearted and sympathetic commanders or fellow soldiers, a couple making an impact with their humanity towards our protagonists.
I really enjoyed 1917, and highly recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible.