Tuesday 21 January 2020

Movie Review: 1917 (2019)

A World War One drama, 1917 is a gripping technical achievement but lacks narrative complexity and character depth.

It's April 1917 on the front lines of the Great War in France. The German army has set a trap by partially withdrawing from advanced positions to lure the British into an ambush. With the help of aerial photography General Erinmore (Colin Firth) spots the ruse. But with the telephone lines destroyed, he turns to Lance Corporals Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) to deliver the crucial message.

It's a near-impossible mission. Blake and Schofield have a few hours to cross no-man's land, pass through the disputed town of Écoust, and reach Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion, Devonshire Regiment to hand deliver a message calling off a doomed attack scheduled for dawn. The lives of 1,600 men, including Tom's brother, depend on the message getting through. With Tom fearless but Will more circumspect, the two men embark on their mission to face the horrors of a grinding war.

Featuring the simplest of storylines, 1917 is more about a sense of time and place than plot or characters. Director Sam Mendes co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and constructs the film as a single, uninterrupted two hour shot. Long takes are seamlessly patched together to create the illusion, and the film brilliantly achieves a sense of real-time urgency by staying with the corporals from the first scene to the last.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith deserve enormous credit. 1917 is a wonder of exquisite camera movement, precise timing, and fluid choreography. Many sequences are astonishing in their beautiful complexity, including a plane crash, an escape through a bombed-out town, and a manic sprint parallel to the trenches as men charge into battle and explosions rock the countryside. Through it all the relentless continuity conveys the inescapable theatre of war, enhanced by a lush Thomas Newman music score.

Along their journey Blake and Schofield witness at close quarters the consequences of large scale human devastation. The French terrain is littered with unclaimed corpses left to rot, some in expected locations but others waiting to provide the gruesome shock of the dead. Mendes does not spare the blood, gore and sheer horror of torn bodies ground into the mud or accumulating in rivers.

With the awe inspiring visuals and flamboyant construction occupying centre stage, 1917 shortchanges plot and characters. The story is a linear adventure, and despite a few surprises along the way the film essentially traverses a predetermined obstacle course between two predefined points. And other than the most basic of sketched-in personalities, Blake and Schofield remain everyman soldiers.

But despite limited human-centred warmth, 1917 offers audacious exposure to the unrelenting horrors of war.

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  1. Compare this with Kubrick's "Paths of Glory." Similar tracking shot. Also a pretty amazing camera tracking sequence in Frankenheimer's "The Train."
    References could also be made to Hitchcock's "Rope" in terms of continuous, real time story telling, as well as Frankenheimer's "High Noon." A lesser-known film that keeps the suspense going in real time is Badham's "Nick of Time."

    1. Good reference to The Train - one of the more underrated 1960s WW2 movies.


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