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Film Review: 1917

17 January 20 words: Ashley Carter

Sir Sam Mendes’ World War One epic is the most Oscar-nominated film of the year, but that means nowt without the ol’ LeftLion stamp of approval…

Director: Sir Sam Mendes
Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth
Running time: 119 mins

Based on stories shared by his own grandfather, Sam Mendes’ 1917 follows two British soldiers - Lance Cpl. Schofield and Lance Cpl. Blake - tasked with the ostensibly Sisyphean mission of a delivering a message deep behind enemy lines. 1,600 British soldiers are in immediate danger of falling in to a trap and, with Blake’s elder brother amongst their number, it falls on the pair to overcome a series on treacherous conditions as they wind their way through the trenches, fields, farms and shelled-out towns of the Western front.

For a director who has been criticised for remaining too firmly entrenched in his theatrical origins, Mendes has crafted a wildly cinematic experience in 1917. Along with his cinematographer – the masterful Roger Deakins – the action is constructed to appear as a single, continuous take, with any edits hidden and the narrative (aside from one exception) playing out in something like real-time. The effect is often breathless, and the resulting film is an engrossing, pulsating experience that sets off at an unrelenting pace and rarely pauses for respite. It might not be the most comfortable viewing experience, but it’s certainly one of the most immersive.

To say that 1917 was anything less that endlessly engaging and immersive would be doing it a great disservice

As an audience, there’s something of a viewing purity that accompanies exclusively following the two protagonists. Any side-plots or narrative distractions are stripped away, and we are witnessing what, in writing terms at least, is a fairly basic structure: two men overcoming a series of increasingly perilous challenges to get from Point A to Point B. Rather than tasking us with paying attention to the plot, we’re instead allowed to let the viewing experience wash over us which, in terms of pure entertainment, is incredibly effective.

László Nemes achieved great success employing a similar tactic with his 2015 masterpiece Son of Saul. However, while the sole-focus aesthetics of that film made the horrors of the Holocaust all the more impactful, the choice to do so in 1917 often has the opposite effect. Too often he attention seems to be solely on the visuals and, on occasions of great peril, you find yourself questioning whether enough time has been invested into these characters to make you care whether they live or die. Obviously, we’re all human, and know that World War One was about as barbaric an experience as could ever be conjured by the darkest recesses of man’s mind. But without the small-scale emotional investment in individuals, the large-scale set pieces just feel like well-crafted but ultimately vacuous distractions.

To say that 1917 was anything less that endlessly engaging and immersive would be doing it a great disservice. There’s an attention to detail to some of the horrific idiosyncrasies of trench warfare that I’ve never before seen in film, and the decision to utilise a batch of well-known acting faces – including Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Daniel Mays and Andrew Scott – in brief cameos adds a level of authenticity to the impersonal, fleeting nature of life as a soldier on the front line. But as the film reached its relatively predictable conclusion, I felt myself feeling strangely empty. I’d certainly been entertained for the last two hours, but I had rarely been truly moved. And for a film about sacrifice and survival amidst one of the darkest chapters in the human history, I couldn’t help feeling like that wasn’t quite enough.

Did you know? The production crew dug over 5,200 feet (just under a mile) of trenches for the film.

1917 is in cinemas now

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