Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 59 minutes, Director – Sam Mendes
Two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) are ordered to cross no-man’s land and enemy territory to stop an attack that could kill over 1,600 men.
Back in 2015 Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman used the idea of multiple hidden cuts to make a film look like one continuous shot to add to the off-beat, and slightly chaotic, nature of the film. Now, five years later, Sam Mendes does the same, but to highlight the length and strains of the journey of two soldiers in World War One. Lance Corporal’s Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are commanded by Colin Firth – one of many short starry performances scattered throughout the film, alongside the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Mark Strong – to cross No Man’s Land, go into enemy territory and find another regiment, with commands to call off an attack due to occur at dawn the next day.
The film’s decision to make it look like everything is done in two shots (there’s a clear cut around half-way through the film) adds to the strain of the journey that the pair undertake; putting the viewer even more into their damp, muddy, worn-out boots. Across various terrains and dangers the viewer is always with the two central figures as they desperately attempt to cross unknown, deadly landscapes.
When mixed with the cinematography of master Roger Deakins, and superb sound and visual design there’s no denying that 1917 fully attempts to place the viewer in a visceral war environment. And for a fair deal of the run-time this is the case, as the two Lance Corporal’s traverse through trap filled enemy terrain deadly tension lingers with every step that they take. Whether through Thomas Newman’s score or the eerie silence and loud sound design of the piece almost every element of noise is precisely used to ramp up the tension and experience for the viewer as they are almost forced into the same experience as the central pair. Such levels only increasing as the film goes on, flowing well throughout and causing the run-time to go by rather quickly.
You only wish that the film could almost be relentless fast-paced action or movement throughout. While some of the quieter walking scenes, such as early ones as Chapman and MacKay’s characters hastily stumble through crowds in the trenches, do manage to hold the interest of the viewer there are some moments of gaps between action that almost become lulls. Moments where you wish that something else was going on. Not to the extent of a constant World War One style Mad Max: Fury Road – although that would be interesting to see – but still at some points you wish that the gaps between moments of strain and action would be slightly shorter for full impact and to keep the viewer near the edge of their seat with tension.
While amongst this the performances are all good there’s never really a point where they truly get to shine. It almost seems as if action and tension were put first at some points over character and emotional impact. There are one or two moments where the performances manage to display their full potential – one moment in particular of MacKay’s shocked soul staggering across the front line as it unfolds into a large battlefield, featured in much of the advertising for the film, truly shows the physical and emotional trauma that his character has been through up until this point in the film. In fact when it comes to the immense scale of the feat that is 1917’s finale the true extent and journey of the film is shown, as the tension and worry is truly ramped up for almost full-effect. It’s moments such as this throughout the film that make it what it is. Something to be experienced on the big screen, the biggest one possible. In fact, with this in mind, there are some points where the scale and feeling of another Iñárritu feature, The Revenant. While not quite on the same scale, run-time or elements of strain and torture, and an entirely different setting; the idea and to an extent feeling of peril and life-risking journey is still there. However, instead of nature being the enemy the struggle for survival is against the threat of both the unknown and the risk of enemy forces being around any corner.
Sam Mendes will very likely win the Best Director Oscar this year for his work on this film, and when you watch 1917 it’s clear to see how. This is definitely a technical achievement, the film may very well win a number of the technical awards on Oscar night. Each technical note goes towards creating something tense, immersive and visceral that should be experienced on the big screen. It’s just a shame that such feelings sometimes escape as the film threatens to slightly lull into quieter moments when it feels like it wants to have almost a constant stream of action and tension, with only one or two short gaps. Either way 1917 is absolutely a technical success that for the most part brings the viewer in for a finely designed world of tension and impact.
The technical elements are all present within 1917 with precise design and detail, making for an often intense, highly sensory tension-filled war feature. However the occasionally extended gaps between action do threaten to go on for slightly longer than may be required.