Movie Review: ‘1917’ flexes the tech at the heart’s slight expense
Director: Sam Mendes
Writers: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns; Alfred Mendes (story from)
Stars: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden
Synopsis: 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.
Small things are massively significant in 1917. Just a letter with an order, but it will decide whether 1,600 British soldiers will march head-first to their graves. Only two souls, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) — both lance corporals, are at the heart of the film, but they are also fitting stand-ins for all the hearts that were really there then. One tender brush of the breeze over a field later and the camera springs to life to begin the continuous take…
…that stops somewhere at the halfway mark. A black screen. While perfectly reflects the character’s mindset — unconscious — it is in every way you look at it a cheat. And for eyes trained in the ways of the eagle or by Birdman, it’s the most obvious one of them all.
By all means, feel sour — it was the technique that allows Sam Mendes’ work to stand apart from other cinematic trench mates after all. Also a valid reaction, though, is to keep hosting the thrill that you’ve encountered before the interruption. It’s actually easier to go for the latter since, seeing how 1917 has the same visual-intensive spirit as Mendes’ own Road to Perdition, the poetic nature of the frame is now intensified to a surreal degree, maximizing the film’s grip on the attention. Under a flare that Sir Roger Deakins has tasked to be a hasty midnight sun and music from Thomas Newman that now cues notes on the verge of bursting, the wakes of war look both horrific and bewitching; the structures that one must go through before the destination have been drained of life by firepower, yet the malformed dance their shadows would briefly perform suggest they have yet realized their demise. It’s a sequence that easily outshines those happened before, and even afterward, in the film. The extremity of the beauty here is both a good salve for the broken promise and a fine justification of the storytelling style that Mendes has settled on.
This stellar set-piece also legitimizes another observation: that the film is much, much more identifiable as a technical showcase. The writing from Krysty Wilson-Cairns and Mendes, whose grandfather Alfred’s “fragment” of a story provided the backbone for 1917, is compelling, the thing is it’s always made secondary to the commendable waltzing between the omnipresent camera and the seemingly straightforward blocking. Somewhat diluted, as a result, is the impact that Chapman and MacKay have fused into their effective performances as two youths who differ on what fruits soldiering will bear but united on the goodness of peace (Blake isn’t as communicative as Schofield on this front, but it’s there — his delivery of outbursts for the Boche isn’t as natural as him recalling how many kinds of cherry orchards there are from his time at home).
Also hampered is the emotional factor of the more-grueling-than-expected delivery mission, which is already limited when you know that among the enlisted are names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden. Brief, their appearances are, but potent — in the sense that glamor is a pit this journey can’t navigate around. There is thus very little room for 1917 to avoid feeling like a walk through the museum.
Still, there are more rights than wrongs to be found here. 1917 is a technical challenge that was accomplished with assistance, but at least it’s accomplished. It’s a tribute to heroism with an abbreviated emotional outreach, yet it’s consistently impressive to look at and to sense the scale of. Be willing to overlook the trees and you will, like Blake and Schofield, see the forest. It’s worth doing it. Small things, massive significance.