FILM REVIEW – 1917. With Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch. Written by Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Directed by Sam Mendes. Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language. 119 minutes.
1917 is impressive and engrossing for two reasons, one cinematic and the other thematic. And once you get over the impressive look of the film, you’re still caught up in the story of how war looks to someone actually fighting it. It’s a story that couldn’t be more timely.
Set during World War I, the plot is deceptively simple. The Germans have retreated and Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is prepared to lead British troops in to take advantage of that. However, General Erin More (Colin Firth) has received intelligence that it’s a trap and needs to get word to MacKenzie. Since it involves going on foot through potentially enemy territory, the task falls to Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay), two lance corporals. The movie then follows the two as they attempt to get the message through.
The key word is “follows.” Through some cinematic sleight-of-hand by director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the movie is presented as if it was shot in a single take. It wasn’t, but you won’t be able to see the seams. This technique has been used in several films whether for long sequences, as in the opening of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” (1958), or entire films, like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s more recent “Birdman” (2014).
The effect is to make viewers feel as if they are experiencing the story in real time, with no editing out of the down times where nothing much seems to be happening. Since it’s wartime, there’s no guarantee that a moment of quiet might not be shattered in the next moment by the sound of gunfire giving us a taste of the tension and uncertainty of the lives of people in combat. There are also no guarantees for the success for the mission or whether the two soldiers will even survive it.
While the acting is solid, it’s not the point of the film. Cumberbatch and Firth appear briefly, and it is Chapman and MacKay who get the most screentime. Everyone seems to realize that, beyond wanting to live to see another day, these characters have no “arcs.” This is not about Blake and Schofield coming of age or realizing the futility of war. While treated respectfully, the filmmakers use them much as their commanding officers do, as a means to an end. It’s about what they go through, not about who they are. We find ourselves racing through trenches and bombed out villages, avoiding sniper fire, and encountering the local non-combatant victims of war. The locations are as much a character as any of the people, demonstrating how even the land pays a price.
Barely released at the end of 2019 (for awards consideration), “1917” becomes the first must-see movie of 2020.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.