Given 1917‘s rather simplistic plot – a pair of infantrymen having to cross the treacherous No Man’s Land in order to prevent a doomed attack during the height of World War 1 – it makes sense that director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) would opt for a more complex manner to detail the story. Single camera shots and extended moments of action infused with a haunting stillness linger across the screen in a surprisingly effective manner, a potential gimmick that never comes off as anything other than masterfully assured.
Throughout the film’s near 2-hour running time, Mendes and lauded cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049) maintain sole focus on Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), seemingly not even allowing themselves to blink in their determination. Though the dreary, depressive palette of No Man’s Land and the lack of dynamic angles earned through eye-level camera placement means Deakins’ work doesn’t seem as initially impressive as his aforementioned recent work, it’s both a necessary ingredient and side-effect to keep a sense of antisensationalism about the horrors we are watching unfold.
Ultimately the decision to track these men in a seemingly unending shot results in a forgettable outcome, and I mean that in the most respectful manner as, such is the skill of both Mendes and Deakins, it completely washes away as you become wholly immersed in their plight. You become accustomed to watching soldiers walk and talk, tracking them as they perform the most natural of acts. It’s in this reality that allows 1917 to work to maximum effect, almost as if we are a helpless fly-on-the-wall as devastating set-pieces unravel before us and linger long after they have exited the frame.
This technical additive also means MacKay and Chapman shoulder the lion’s share of the film’s considerable weight. Whilst it’s easy to pick apart the plot’s typical “war film 101” tropes – shetering a civilian, the opposing soldier and their wounds, the sole female begging our hero not to go – the actors are so incredibly committed that they transcend both any story familiarity and the industrial presentation itself. It’s also beneficial to the organic nature of the film that MacKay and Chapman aren’t instant names in their field with their everyman-type demeanours, with Mendes only momentarily opting for star-power clout with Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, and Mark Strong arriving in the most diminutive of roles.
Based in part on an account Mendes’ paternal grandfather Alfred Mendes recalled to him, 1917 is ultimately an emotional journey grounded in humanism. It’s visually spectacular and undoubtedly a polished feat of filmmaking craft, but its technical soundness doesn’t mask the dark, almost sinister undercurrent of the story’s tenacious nature, something that reminds us of the hope and horrors that often merge throughout history’s most defining moments.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
4K Special Features
Given the technically impressive feat Mendes achieves within the film to simulate one successive shot, one would assume the behind-the-scenes features would be a wealth of information. And whilst segments like Weight of the World, The Score of 1917, Allied Forces: Making 1917, and Recreating History all dabble in informative grounds, their respective disappointing lengths (totalling a collective 30 minutes) leave a lot to be desired for a film that’s so intricately designed.
Thankfully, the two feature-length commentaries from director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins are a wealth of information, and really where the disc earns its Special Feature points. Deakins focuses a lot on the editing, rigging, camera work, and lighting that was necessary to achieve the film’s “one look”, whilst Mendes adds more detail regarding his process. Considering how heavily involved in the film they are, it’s impressive that neither track overlaps on information.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
1917 is available to rent/buy on DVD, Blu-Ray, 4K, and on digital platforms now.