REEL Review – 1917 (2020)

DIRECTOR: SAM MENDES | RUNTIME: 1HR 59MINS | DRAMA, WAR

During April of 1917, two British soldiers must travel deep behind enemy lines to deliver a message to stop a attack. If not, 1600 men – and one of the soldiers brothers – will be massacred.

Over the years we’ve been treated to a plethora of World War II dramas, exploring the horrors many had to endure just to survive and the toll this takes on those that do. Saving Private Ryan (1998), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) all take unique approaches to fictionalised and reality-based stories to delve into one of the worst atrocities in history. The First World War has less cinematic attention in comparison, though the best from this era (Paths of Glory [1956] and All Quiet On The Western Front [1930]) date back some time in comparison, they’re much slower paced, less action orientated with deep roots in anti-war themes, much less so than its WWII counter parts.

Enter Sam Mendes, using the techniques he learnt from directing Spectre (2015), with the opening acting like a seamless one-shot, he created a seemingly edit-less feature film set in 1917. The most interesting aspect of the film as a whole isn’t the camera work however – though it is a cinematic feat in itself, and those involved deserve all the admiration and praise – but instead how he makes a narrative around survival and desperation in the worst of times, but in a action-ladened setting. It’s difficult to create exciting war scenes for the viewer without some glorification of war or lionisation of the ‘heroes’ we follow, something Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns managed to achieve with apparent ease (and Mendes himself with 2005’s Jarhead). The journey we embark on doesn’t turn our protagonists into the heroic, fearless war veterans you might expect. Instead, they’re simply surviving conflict around them, trying to help others do the same.

Much of the narrative feels like a retelling by a grandparent and keeps much of the film human and engaging beyond the exciting action sequences.

Quiet moments of reflection give breaks between the intense action, beautifully framed using the unbroken shot to its fullest, constantly moving so even when the pacing slows it still feels kinetic. These moments feel important and deserved, though our leads may not be the most in depth characters in film they’re realistic and – more importantly – relatable. So much of the narrative feels like a retelling by a grandparent (partially due to the fact that it’s loosely based off of a story Mendes’ grandfather once told him) and keeps much of the film human and engaging beyond the exciting action sequences.

Speaking of our leads, it would do them a disservice to not mention the quality of the performances by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as Schofield and Blake, respectively. They aren’t given the most meaty roles with layers upon layers of depth, but they bring playful and charming moments between the visceral action, discussions about why Schofield no longer has his medal from the Somme, coming across a singing soldier and more break up the tension nicely without conflating the runtime, providing us with a nice thread to latch onto without distracting from the real meat of the story.

It certainly is helped by the foreboding score by Thomas Newman constantly ratcheting up the tension, consistently starting slowly and quiet building to the crescendos, each time feeling longer and more difficult to reach than the last, always reflecting the journey Schofield and Blake are forcing themselves on. It blends perfectly with the sound design, plane engines sounding almost as explosive as the rockets landing on the battlefield – certainly one to see on the big screen whilst you still have the chance.

Through all this you still may think the one-shot could come across as a gimmick or distracting, maybe there’s a time a reaction shot or cutaway would be perfect? The beauty of the film Mendes has meticulously designed though is everything feels like it needs to be shot the way it is, as previously mentioned the camera is always on the move so we always have our interaction and reaction timed to perfection.

Though Mendes’ career is littered with superb cinema – American Beauty (1999), Road To Perdition (2002) and Jarhead (2005) – 1917 is a strong contender for his best. It may not have the script of American Beauty or the performances of Road To Perdition but it’s clear this is exactly the vision Mendes had for the film, a visual treat with more to dive into than initially appears, he’s a filmmaker truly in control of his craft and has made one of the years best films.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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