Every now and again a film comes along that changes the game. Star Wars. The Matrix. Gravity. Films that give us something we didn’t know we needed until we saw them. Films that stay with us long after the lights come up and the stray pieces of popcorn are swept away. It’s no accident that 1917 is receiving the acclaim that it is.
Northern France, April 6, 1917. 3 Years into a disastrous war. Communications between British troops have been severed and after a tactical German retreat, the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment is about to charge, all out, into an ambush. Meanwhile Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) sleep shallowly under a tree, oblivious. This rare moment of serenity in an otherwise fraught, frantic campaign is short-lived however as they are summoned to General Erinmore’s (Firth) tent where the plan is laid before them. Cross No Man’s Land and the seemingly deserted German trenches to hand deliver a message to Colonel Mackenzie of the 2nd, calling off the attack. Fail and 1600 men die. Among them, Blake’s brother.
Roger Deakins utilises his decades of experience to flawlessly glide the camera through the packed trenches as Blake and Schofield make their way to the front line, carrying the weight of 1600 lives on their shoulders. As the two young men ascend the last trench and cast their eyes across a shattered landscape, littered with both human and animal remains, the film seamlessly shifts from safe chaos, to exposed silence. It’s game on.
Chapman and MacKay are a natural pairing and do a remarkable job as the centerpiece of this film. They radiate camaraderie and the emotional heart of the story is beautifully balanced between them through subtly expressive performances, spanning lengthy tracking shots. Chapman the talkative comic relief, ever seeing the brightside and never failing to draw a reluctant smile from his companion MacKay who plays the more jaded of the two, having already done time on front lines. Powerful, compelling work from two bright young British talents.
Thomas Newman’s score is as forceful as the visuals. It fluidly transitions between gentle yet tense atmosphere to soaring melodies that make every hair stand to attention as wave after wave of rising chords wash over you. As a sucker for epic tunes I’d take this over Zimmer’s Dunkirk score any day of the week.
Now, onto the topic that’s got everyone talking. The “one-shot”. Mendes claimed that the only way to tell this story effectively was to have it seem to take place in a single, 2-hour shot. By never granting the audience respite from the action and maintaining relentless focus on our two leads, we would feel every victory, every loss, every tension-charged minute on a deeper level. A bold declaration. So, does the output live up to the audacity of the promise? Well we know from his work on Spectre, Mendes is no stranger to a one-shot. Then again, the scene in question is probably the best thing in that film. Besides, a 10-minute tracking shot is a world away from an entire film so I’ll admit, at first, I was skeptical. Such a risky idea had to be flawed, even with the master cinematographer Roger Deakins at the helm. Then I saw it. How wrong I was…
From the opening static composition I was enraptured. I felt every moment and for me, that is a rare thing. I expected to spend the majority of the run-time analysing and deconstructing the shots, poking holes in the geography and basically sucking all the joy out of it. But I didn’t. It functioned on an emotional level on a par with any top-tier war film and the camera flowed with an elegance and grace that was a privilege to watch. I’m almost reluctant to watch the special features to see how they actually pulled this off. But I’m definitely going to. None of this to say however that it was purely down to the camera department. An accomplishment like this wouldn’t be possible without the immaculate set design, costuming and effects work that went into to building this hellscape. You could almost smell the corpses, taste the mud. If I didn’t know better I’d say they really had walked across the battlefields of Northern France… but I guess that’s the point.
Ruling – The cynics will call it ‘Oscar Bait’ but this film is much more than just a technical achievement. It’s far greater than the sum of its parts. Quite simply, it’s a triumph. A masterpiece.