I wasn’t that excited to see 1917. Firstly, it’s a war film, which as a general rule I don’t get along with: patriotism, toxic masculinity, the waste of human life. And then the cast: stalwart after stalwart of the Serious British Drama Film, pale, male and stale. I despise war narratives that depict the Western forces as ‘heroes’ in senseless conflicts, moustachioed generals smoking in the warmth of their barracks whilst their men are peppered down by the enemy like a child playing whack-a-mole. Even Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk with its much-hyped cinematography: in the immortal words of Shania Twain, that don’t impress me much. But the reason why, against all odds, 1917 worked so well for me, was that it wasn’t necessarily about war. It was about the tenacity of friendship, not duty. About how far people will go when the pressure of not letting a friend down weighs heavy on your heart, not the stake of your country. About pride too, sure: a feeling that many war films try so hard to depict, yet get overshadowed by the things already mentioned. But the setting of war seemed incidental; its presence seems to feel like background noise to the very inward stakes at play.
The film begins in the second trimester of the First World War in April 1917. Two British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the impossibly risky mission to hand-deliver a message to another battalion, which would prevent an ill-fated attack on the Germans that would have almost certainly resulted in the death of all 1600 British men. Among the men in the battalion is Blake’s older brother. But this arduous journey across No Man’s Land and into German territory is no easy one, and after a gentle start, soon every passing second feels grippingly urgent.
Many reviews are focusing far too parochially on 1917 being shot in ‘one take.’ Firstly, this isn’t the first film to attempt this, and more importantly, a hard fade to black in the middle not only a) visibly and deliberately cuts the take and b) signifies the passing of at least a few hours. This is not a one-take film at all, nor does it pretend to be. And, bar it being fun for the first twenty minutes or so to try and see where the editors had stitched the dusty seams together, you soon forget about the technique and it’s not distracting at all. The protracted takes are extremely effective in imbuing a sense of reality and ceaseless tension into what almost feels like a cinéma-vérité film, but this isn’t 1917’s only, or biggest talking point.
There’s a recurring framing motif that Sam Mendes deploys in 1917 – a slender, vertical rectangle. Often used in film to depict entrapment, here it’s used differently–it seems to suggest singularity, and how one soldier’s fight to honour a promise carries a much loftier emotional and narrative weight than killing a mass enemy, ‘the Germans.’ It also often resembles a myriad of other things, but here, visibly, a tombstone. Every time Lance Corporal Schofield leaves the shelter of the indoors and emerges through that slender rectangular doorway into the wide open, he’s signing his death sentence in shaky, uncertain pencil.
I’m shocked that George MacKay’s stunning performance as Lance Corporal Schofield hasn’t garnered him a single muddy speck of awards buzz. Unlike Mendes’ takes that flit imperceptibly into one another, MacKay’s emotional range soars and falls in such an incisive, here-the-fuck-I-am way that it was breathtaking to watch. He manages to be both emotionally repressed and shell-shocked into wordlessness while also completely free of inhibition; at one point all he can do is sink to his knees and scream, even though he – at that moment – is safe, even though there is no one around to hear him. There’s an incredible moment where, appearing to be deadpan and calm, he begins to talk about home and mid-sentence chokes into a sob that seems to appear from nowhere. Dean-Charles Chapman, however – the less about him said, perhaps the better. I’m just not convinced by his acting chops. In my review of The King I suggested his medieval capers were more suited to BBC’s Raven and, at times in 1917, he occasionally seemed like a kid playacting in a Call of Duty live action. Indeed, the one element of 1917 that let me down was certain bizarre casting choices. At the film’s most anxiety-inducing apex, it is revealed that a man that our character has gone through so much toil to find… is Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s like making it to heaven and discovering God is Eamonn Holmes. For some reason, Cumberbatch’s inclusion makes such a worked-for, thrilling moment so unspeakably silly; the scene would have benefited so much more from a smaller name that was less distracting. Similarly, having Colin Firth and Andrew Scott (despite my love for them) vying for attention in their scenes also felt a little out of place.
Deakins’ cinematography is, as always, glorious, and thankfully not as reliant on the ashy golds that characterise so many of his ventures, giving 1917 a really unique palette. The fields, parakeet-green and oxymoronically beautiful, contrast with the pale brown of the uniforms, allowing this film to, for once, actually enjoying a pared-down use of colour that never felt uninteresting or uncinematic. The filmmaking truly is second to none: though we may roll our eyes at Mendes being nominated for accolade after accolade, especially after a lack of female nominees in the directing categories this year, he truly deserves his praise. Thomas Newman’s score also fulfilled its purpose beautifully: it was tense, emotive and rousing.
1917’s showy filmmaking doesn’t detract from the evil of war or a pursuit of naturalism – it matches the elevated tension of what our protagonist has at stake. Mendes proves that there’s a way to celebrate the bravery exhibited in the war without a bitter shadow of jingoism.
Words by Steph Green