Director: Sam Mendes.
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch.
|Hell of a place to go for a jog.|
Thankfully it's more than just a masterfully conceived war film executed with clockwork-like precision. Its "gimmick" of looking like it was predominantly filmed in a single take moves the story to the next level, providing a nail-biting cinema experience that will be hard to replicate.
On a day like any other on the French battlefields of World War I, two young British soldiers Tom Blake (Chapman) and Will Schofield (MacKay) are tasked with delivering a message across No Man's Land to the British forces pursuing the surprise retreat of the German army. The Germans' move is a ruse, and the Brits are walking into a trap, but Blake and Schofield have less than a day to cover the ground and potentially save the lives of 1600 men.
After watching this, the first thing you'll want to know is "how the hell did they do it?". The answers can be found in this excellent video:
While Mendes has overseen the whole crazy thing and pulled it off, the real MVP is Roger Deakins, the legendary cinematographer who was famously nominated for 13 Oscars before he finally won one on his 14th attempt. Deakins and his team not only keep the camera moving (without falling over or crashing into things), but manage to capture some beautiful shots in the process. A glide over a water-filled crater in No Man's Land, a bombed city by flare-light, a chance encounter by candlelight - they all look painterly, and are all the more impressive for the tough conditions.
Mackay and Chapman also excel in trying times. There's been a lot of focus on the fact most of their job was about hitting marks, covering distance and not fucking up ridiculously long takes. But they deserve recognition for their excellent performances in the face of technical adversity. They make Schofield and Blake real and rounded, bestowing these lads with humour and heart. Firth, Cumberbatch and Strong show up with gravitas-laden cameos, but 1917 supersedes its one-take conceit thanks in large part to the efforts of Mackay and Chapman.
All war films, even before Saving Private Ryan's pants-shittingly intense opening sequence, have tried to put the audience in the trenches with the troops, often through bombastic sound design and onscreen chaos. 1917 uses the typical tricks, but its one-take technique adds a new flavour. In parts it feels like a video game, and I mean that in a good way. It puts you alongside or directly behind the protagonist, like you're controlling him or following him through a level, whichever way you want to look at it. Either way, it makes you invested in what's happening in a way most video game-inspired movies have been unable to do.
1917 is like Saving Private Ryan meets Gravity - it's the immersive veracity and honesty of the former, mixed with the relentless intensity of the latter. You just have to hold on and grit your teeth, and wonder how the hell anyone survived such a godforsaken war.