Time: 119 Minutes
Age Rating: Depicts graphic & realistic war scenes
George MacKay as Lance Corporal Will Schofield
Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Tom Blake
Mark Strong as Captain Smith
Andrew Scott as Lieutenant Leslie
Richard Madden as Lieutenant Joseph Blake
Claire Duburcq as Lauri
Colin Firth as General Erinmore
Benedict Cumberbatch as Colonel Mackenzie
Director: Sam Mendes
During World War I, two British soldiers — Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades — including Blake’s own brother.
I’ve heard about 1917 for a while now. I knew that it was a World War 1 movie being directed by Sam Mendes, and was being shot by Roger Deakins, with much of the movie made to look like it’s shot in one continuous take. With awards season ramping up and it getting some attention, there was much talk about the movie. While narratively 1917 isn’t great, it’s pretty much outstanding on every other level.
1917 is a simple story, our protagonists have to get to a particular place with not a lot of time to spare, and a lot of danger along the way. It’s also not contemplative about the nature of war or the like (closer to Black Hawk Down than Apocalypse Now), this is intended as an tense, action war thriller, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you aren’t immersed in what’s going on and don’t feel somewhat tense at least once within the first half hour, you might be a little bored throughout, because most of the movie is the main characters going from place to place, and occasionally getting shot at. There are already plenty of comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, another war movie released a couple years ago. I’m not going to talk about which is better, but to illustrate my next point I’ll compare them briefly. Dunkirk is a pure war movie experience, and although there are many characters throughout, there’s not really any focus about their journey and you don’t learn anything about them, it’s more them trying desperately to survive and succeed at what they had to do, and that worked for the movie. 1917 isn’t a character study or anything but it does have a little more characterisation, mostly with the lead characters. This is mostly shown during the downtime scenes, which is usually when they’re out of danger and are talking about things. Unfortunately, these scenes don’t work quite as well. They seem to grind the pacing to a halt, which I’m fine with, but in order for them to work you actually have to care about what’s going on beyond the basic level of them being human beings and our main characters. While you’re on board and wanting the lead characters to succeed in their task, you aren’t invested enough in them, so during these moments you don’t really feel much and you’re mostly just waiting for the next exciting thing to happen. While I wouldn’t trade these scenes for more scenes of tensions or action and the scenes aren’t bad by any means, this movie might’ve been fantastic if these scenes were handled better. With all that being said, the emotional payoff at the end is surprisingly effective.
As seen in the trailer, there are many big names in this movie, with the like of Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others involved. They are good in the movie, but they are pretty much one scene cameos playing notable supporting characters along the way. Instead the leads of the movie are George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, and both give great emotional and physical performances throughout. While the character work doesn’t exactly great (as I said up above), the acting from both more than made up for it. MacKay in particular is great, and in a less stacked year would be getting awards consideration.
While I’m not sure that I’d call 1917 Sam Mendes’s best movie, his work here is undeniably fantastic. His task was incredibly ambitious on a technical level, and he managed to pull it off. Let’s talk about the one take shooting. Roger Deakins is great as a cinematographer, but this ranks amongst some of his best work. As mentioned earlier, much of the movie is made to look like it’s filmed in one continuous take. There are moments where you can probably guess where they made a cut between two takes (like when entering a location of darkness or when something is blocking the camera), and there is one very distinct cut to black at one point, but otherwise everything else is made to look like it’s in one shot. Some people have called this a gimmick understandably, but I don’t think it’s a gimmick. It immerses you into what’s going on with the lead characters as they struggle to navigate their environment. There are some truly stunning sequences, both with the camera movements, and the actual visuals themselves. The environment, production design, costumes, and the like are also well handled, and the one take shooting shows them off in how much attention to detail it all is. It’s dark, grimy and unpleasant, like it should be made to look. Outside of the very clear downtime scenes, you don’t feel safe in the rest of the scenes, and there’s a level of tension throughout. Thomas Newman composed the score, and it does very well to ramp up the tension.
When I say that 1917 is a pure cinematic experience that works best when watching it on a big screen in a cinema, I mean it as a double edged sword. It’ll very likely be one of the best cinema going experiences you’ll have from a 2019 film, however I don’t know how well it’s going to hold up after it leaves cinemas. So I implore you to go watch 1917 on the biggest screen possible. As that, it’s a fantastic thrill ride (despite some complaints I had with the characterisation and narrative), and it’s really worth seeing. Even if it doesn’t fare that well after it leaves cinemas, Sam Mendes’s work here is absolutely masterful, and the acclaim on that front is deserved.