When thinking about popular subject matter in cinema, it’s fair to say that the two World Wars of the twentieth century have provided some some of the richest and most celebrated picture since the beginning of the medium. From a personal point of view, it always amazes me how generation upon generation seems to be able to take the same subjects and point a new spin on them that makes the genre feel completely refreshed each time. I got the sense that a new dawn was breaking with 2017’s Dunkirk, and it felt very much like 1917 was going to continue in a similar fashion.
The film tells the story of Lance Corporals William Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), two British soldiers who are sent on a dangerous and foolhardy mission across No Man’s Land and into enemy territory to deliver a life or death message to another Battalion.
The first and most obvious thing to say about 1917 is that it is an absolute technical marvel. Through expert directing and genius levels of small editing, the film flows as if a single take, taking the audience through the action in the very same way as the protagonists. I initially worried that this one take nature might serve to make the narrative feel slow and laboured, but I’m pleased to report it had the exact opposite effect.
The sheer levels of immersion that one experiences by encountering obstacles in real time with the characters on screen are truly next level. If you could aim any criticism at the film, it might be that the procession of set pieces on the mission make it start to feel a touch ‘video gamey’, but I was so invested in the story from the first frame that I didn’t have any issue with the familiar feel of going from stage to stage with a new problem to face on the way.
Aside from the technical mastery, what it so rewarding is that amidst the gunfighting, trench battling and general warfare, the film also finds time for sentimentality and even humour in places. The hint of sentimentality is something that I am a total sucker for, and it strikes a huge contrast against the horrors of the war ridden landscape. 1917 doesn’t forget that for many viewers, the capital W ‘War’ isn’t always the only key selling point in a film like this, it’s also about the endearment of central characters, figures on screen to really care about in the middle of the carnage.
The length, breadth and depth of a World War is simply too gargantuan for a single film, and the rising popularity of telling micro histories of smaller moments within the bigger picture is something that works on a much better and more effective level for me personally. In terms of the big picture, this single mission was a drop in the ocean, but for two hours in the cinema, Sam Mendes have succeeded in making us feel like those two Lance Corporals delivering their message is the most important moment of the War. And for them, it was.
As Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman put in two really endearing and strong performances. When a film spends so much time focusing on just two characters, you better believe that they need to be a hit with the audience, and these two most definitely are. There’s no scenery chewing from either actor, both portrayals feel completely grounded and authentic, and you like them and route for them instantly.
It would be easy to say that 1917 is one of those action movies that requires not much more than engaged ‘reaction acting’ from its lead performers, but both MacKay and Chapman bring much more to their roles than simply dodging bullets and running across decimated fields.
Something that adds even deeper quality to the film is that its very briefly featured supporting cast feels like a who’s who of British acting quality. The likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden literally make two or three minute long cameos, with Firth and Cumberbatch in particular seemingly born to play the stuffy, stiff upper lip Generals and Colonels that make such a contrast to MacKay and Chapman’s youthful, lower ranked attitudes.
Overall, I have no hesitation in saying that 1917 is a triumph on several levels. A masterpiece of filmmaking in both its cinematography and its editing, without forgetting the all important factor of still telling a story that has real heart to it. I can absolutely see why it picked up the main prize for drama at this year’s Golden Globes, and I expect it to be challenging for top honours once again at the Academy Awards.