It’s been over a 100 years since it started and ended, yet World War 1 remains unexplored in media. It’s just as complex and eventful a time period as World War 2, yet that is the more popular option. Why this is the case can be due to many different reasons, but films recently have been trying to rectify that, with Wonder Woman changing the title character’s origin to WW1 and Sam Mendes’ latest film being entirely about a 24-hour period on the battlefield in 1917, a year before the war ended. 1917 has gotten plenty of hype and it is warranted, even if it’s not outright amazing.
Privates Blake (George Mackay) and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman) are two young soldiers on the front lines of combat during World War 1. They are both tasked with having to deliver a message to call off an attack from the 2nd Battalion of British forces on German forces, who are going to ambush them in lieu of retreating.
1917 is the kind of film that will either get the label of “technical achievement” or “gimmick movie”, depending on whether your opinion is positive or negative. Both descriptions are apt, but they would be underselling it. 1917 might be carried by Roger Deakins’s wonderful cinematography, but it also contains a well told story. It is just the right length and surprisingly tight, as whilst the one-shot setup and heavy amount of down-time sequences makes for a film that can sometimes feel baggy, it never outstays its welcome.
However, if you’re expecting a complex and thematically rich narrative, then that’s not what this movie is going for. It never gets any more complicated than what the premise describes, which is certainly a good thing, but it does result in a story that does not leave much of a lasting impact. What keeps emotional investment is Mendes’ personal passion for the material (having based it on a story that his grandfather told him when he was a child), that shines in the more emotional sequences that involve focus on either Blake and Schofield’s friendship or their backstories. Though neither are 3-dimensional, there’s enough character there to feel investment in their plight.
The script also thrives on realism, as aside from one or two contrived moments, everything that happens is something that believably would happen. What’s most distinctive is that despite being very action heavy, the action itself never becomes epic. Aside from the finale, all the action is small scale and it largely consists of chase sequences, with there also not even being an action scene for the first 30 minutes. 1917 succeeds in being quite a believable depiction of WW1, as well as not being too ludicrous.
The two actors that carry the film are also worthy of praise, as Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay show that despite being more known for supporting performances, they can carry a film by themselves. Chapman is particularly good, especially in one stand-out scene that totally changes the direction of the story and Mackay is just as strong. The only other actor who makes an impression is Richard Madden, for reasons that I won’t spoil.
As for the other actors, the casting of people like Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch in fleeting roles does not really work because not only does it feel like they doing favours for Mendes, but it also acts as a distraction because the material they are given is very standard and generic. If unknown actors were cast then this would have been fine, but if you’re going to cast people like Colin Firth in your movie then they deserve memorable dialogue and characters rather than ones that just move the story along.
Regarding cinematography, I can easily see Roger Deakins getting another Oscar for this. It’s a visually dynamic and engaging film that looks beautifully gritty. The one-take set-up brings forth a sense of realism that might not have been there if it was filmed conventionally. There are also a lot of scenes that take place at night, yet the lighting is bright enough to where you can still see what is going on. Thomas Newman’s score is also atmospheric and very effective, being another addition to a long line of great collaborations between him and Mendes.
1917 is a worthy addition to Sam Mendes’s filmography, even if it is not his best film. It succeeds in being an intense experience and will be best enjoyed in cinemas, though I doubt it will become a classic.