Firstly when I heard that Roger Deakins was doing a one-shot war film, set in World War I, directed by Sam Mendes my first reaction was:
Here’s a quick summary of the film from IMDB:
Two young British privates during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.
I saddled up for this film on a weekday, and having not seen the trailers, I went in with no expectations beyond the magic that I know Deakins is capable of. And I was not disappointed on that front. The cinematography in 1917 is out of this world. The film is designed to look as if it is entirely one shot (it’s not, obviously), and manages to pull this off really well; I imagine that most general audiences won’t notice the subtle transitions where the cuts are hidden.
Much of the film was shot using natural light because of the long takes and vast number of subjects in some shots; it’s just impossible to constantly set up synthetic lighting when traversing large distances while capturing a quality image and sound. The behind the scenes featurette released not too long ago provides some insight into how they managed to pull this off using short windows of time to film scenes. Check it out below.
The production and set design is also magnificent; from the architecture of buildings, to the uniforms of soldiers, and the vehicles driven; every detail is in the perfect place to build the world out into this massive World War I epic. And it works. The world feels full, and dangerous, and desolate and unforgiving.
At just under 2 hours, this film flew by. It’s a highly kinetic experience, but is not afraid to take its time and let the audience sit with the intense moments of grief or the tension involved in a standoff with enemies.
The simplistic story and goal for the main characters means that much of the focus is on building character and showing off the stylistic flourishes of battle and the general hell that is war. One of my favourite scenes that does all of this is one that takes place at night (when you watch it, you’ll know what I’m talking about).
While the film had a strong story, solid pacing, likable characters and heartfelt moments, it just didn’t feel as dramatic as I was expecting. I had heard comparisons to Saving Private Ryan, and honesty that film is just on a whole other level in terms of brutality, drama and tension. 1917 opts for a more grounded portrayal of war that’s shot in a really stylish fashion. It may work for some, but depends entirely on personal taste.
In terms of the lead roles, both George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman pull off solid performances, Chapman working well with a very robust and confident character, and MacKay puts in a solid entry in his filmography with a quieter, more stoic one. The rest of the cast is filled out with A-list actors. Seriously, every big British actor makes an appearance in this film.
Obviously, with the budget and scope of the film, Mendes was always going to flex with a cast full of magnificent actors; but seeing each one of them make an appearance one after the other just kind of ripped me out of the film each time. I get that this is purely subjective, so maybe it won’t be a big deal for most people.
1917 is a great film from a stylistic perspective; it’s shot beautifully, edited nimbly, with production and costume design that shows a strong commitment to detail. It’s got a simple story which works effectively to enhance the characters, while remaining grounded in a world that feels real; which doesn’t always work in its favour.
The two core leads both put in solid performances, but the large number of famous actors playing side characters rips one out of the realism that the rest of the technical elements of the film work so hard to build.
Watch the trailer for 1917 here:
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