Sam Mendes’ thrilling First World War epic 1917 is not the first film to present itself as a faux one continuous take tale. This technique has been effectively utilized in film such as Alfred Hitchcock’sRope and more recently in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Academy Award winning Birdman to name a few. While employing a series of long takes with strategic cuts may not feel as pure as true one-shot films like Russian Ark or Victoria, the level of orchestration involved is still a sight to behold.
Opening with a calming shot of British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), having a moment of rest by a nearby tree. Mendes’ film quickly takes the audience into the intricate British trenches as Schofield and Blake are assigned a special mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Once believing that the German army were on the retreat, new intel warns that enemy forces have strategically regrouped to a new position. One that will allow them to wipe out a British battalion, consisting of 1,600 men led by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who are currently in pursuit of them.
With only a scant few hours to stop the battalion from walking into a trap, Schofield and Blake must traverse enemy lines and relay the orders for Colonel Mackenzie to cease his pending attack. The fact that Blake’s brother (Richard Madden) is part of the colonel’s platoon only adds to the urgency.
One of the things that makes 1917 such a jaw-dropping film is the various terrains that the two men must navigate. The film takes audiences on a harrowing journey that gets the heart pumping even before Schofield and Blake make it to the German frontline trenches.
Just watching the two young men attempt to cross barbed wires and decaying corpses scattered throughout “no man’s land” is a tension filled experience. Roger Deakins blisteringly rich cinematography, which moves from grimy to operatic to ethereal at different points, adds to an experience that is equally horrifying and majestic.
The taut and chilling imagery in 1917 grab viewers by the throat and releases them just long enough to gasp for air. The calming beauty of the French landscape, which often lays right beside the haunting destruction of war, allows the weight of the soldier’s predicament to resonate. It is in these sequences that the depth of MacKay and Chapman’s performances shine through.
While 1917 may not be filled with too many emotional moments, both actors ensure that the gravity of their characters predicament remains at the forefront. The comradery between the two men helps to humanize the characters.
MacKay is especially a revelation as he must balance a mixture of fear, heroism and compassion. He keeps the film moving even in its weakest, but arguably most visually stunning, moment when Schofield attempts to navigate a destroyed village at night with several enemy fighters nearby.
1917 creates a cinematic experience that is unforgettable. The unsettling feeling that danger lurks around every corner ensures one will be on the edge of their seats every step of the way.