When a film’s already won two Golden Globes (plus a nomination) expectations run high. And 1917 doesn’t disappoint. Set post-Somme in the trenches of World War I, it tells the story of a very small part of a larger picture. Co-written and directed by respected theatre-turned-film director Sam Mendes, the plot is fictional but closely based on true events – Mendes was inspired by real-life experiences as described by his grandfather.
We follow two young Brits, Blake and Schofield (Dean Charles-Chapman and George MacKay), charged with delivering a warning message that will save the lives of 1600 soldiers. To do so, they must cross enemy lines and no-man’s land, a seemingly suicidal mission. But with failure equaling the massacre of many – including Blake’s brother, the stakes are high.
One of the main reasons 1917‘s meeting with such acclaim, is its startlingly effective single-take style of shooting. Of course, it’s not filmed entirely in one go, clever digital edits and the odd explosion or character blackout allow for a reset. But it allows us to see events unfold through the eyes of the characters as we experience the horror, shock and suspense with gritty reality. In an unusual (but supremely effective) directorial move, one of the most significant moments of the movie happens when Schofield has his back turned, meaning we too only discover the immediate aftermath as he turns back and sees. The single-take effect is slick, in-the-moment and while modern in technique, feels more in keeping with the period than the cinematography of many other big-budget war movies.
The performances are consuming too, with a big-name cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth and Andrew Scott. Scott’s brilliantly pitched and utterly real lieutenant brings moments of humour to an otherwise harrowing, high-stress watch. Yet the famous faces are all resigned to cameos, with almost all of the action centering on the two relatively un-starry leads – a refreshing change from standard blockbuster fare.
There are several moments that are predictably played out and twee, with cliched Hollywood elements leaving bits of the action slightly incredulous (but in fairness, this is a drama, not a documentary). Yet it’s the cinematography and soundtrack that steal the show. 1917 is also an important, timely reminder of the true cost of war and real hardship, for those of us living in the sanitised, cosseted and digitised Western society of today.
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from from 10 Jan 2020