FOUR AND A HALF STARS Two young men must deliver a message to the front line to avoid a massacre.
George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
PERIOD DRAMA #1917
Sam Mendes’ (SKYFALL) fetted production is a very personal story. In memory of, and to some extent inspired by, his grandfather’s involvement in World War 1, 1917 is a formidable slice of cinematic history. it’s a simple enough story; two lads are sent to the front line to deliver a message. What follows is anything but simple as they cross enemy lines and are fired upon from all directions in scenes as harrowing as any from <insert name of great war film here> including DUNKIRK or the opening salvo of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
The kicker though, is Mendes’ decision to shoot it all in one take. That’s to say, the camera never stops rolling and events take place in real time. It’s not a new technique, Hitchcock’s ROPE was one of the earliest, celebrated films to thus drop audiences into the thick of the action. Of course, he didn’t have the digital tricks that Mendes has at his disposal but to his credit, 1917 never feels faked despite some edge-of-the-seat moments where you sit agog wondering just how he did it.
Consequently 1917 is a visual triumph. Scene after scene is stunningly directed as the boys traverse fields of mud and dead bodies, burnt villages, deep ravines and later apocalyptic scenes of devastation in French towns before a final onslaught by the German Luftwaffe. All this with the ever present fear of the enemy lurking just off camera, ready to pounce. And we’re right there with them, every step of the way. It’s certainly a nerve-jangling affair, one given gravitas for personal reasons: they’ve been sent by HQ to call off an attack that would see allied forces fall into a German trap. Thousands will die, including the brother of one the lads. Has he been used to ensure the message gets through? Most certainly. There’s a war to win.
Cameos abound including Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong as senior officers, yet the film belongs to George McKay (SUNSHINE ON LEITH) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Game Of Thrones) as the men fulfilling their mission. Familiar enough, yet sufficiently free of star-wattage to let their characters do the work (there’s not a moment when their upper lips loose form, such is their dedication to the task), they’re both terrific.
1917 is undoubtedly an anxiety inducing experience, but one totally in tune with its subject matter. It’s also a thrilling often inspiring story about courage, loyalty and friendship in adversity. It nods to the pointless waste of war but that’s not the central theme, anyway it’s moot by this stage of the game. Mendes with the celebrated Roger Deakins behind his camera makes conveys the enormity of the slaughter by holding a sharp focus on two men and their harrowing ordeal. It’s as visceral and frightening as any film about World War 1 as you’re likely to see.