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1917 – film review

January 16, 2020

1917

Immersive cinema at its most visceral.

Reviewed on Sunday 12th January 2020


Directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Starring: George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. Running time: 119 mins.

Two determined British soldiers stationed in the north of France are sent across no man’s land in a race against time to hand-deliver a message to halt 1600 of their own countrymen from going over the top in what appears to be an enemy ambush.

PLEASE NOTE – THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE

There have been several films made over the years depicting the horrors of WWI trench warfare – from Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) to Russell Mulcahy’s The Lost Battalion (2001). While as good as those films are – none of them come even close to producing the sustained tension or visceral punch of Sam Mendes’ latest offering.

Loosely inspired by stories told to him by his grandfather when he was a child, 1917 is clearly something of a passion project for Mendes.

This gripping film is comprised of a series of incredibly long, flawlessly-choreographed Steadicam shots – blended seamlessly together; achieving the impression that the entire two hour running time of the movie is just one long continuous shot. The effect of this is that we the audience become immersed in the action and setting to such an extent that we leave the cinema believing we have just been through the exact same experience the characters have been through. The amount of meticulous planning and effort to make this work just boggles the mind. It’s a remarkable achievement for everyone involved.

With the journey essentially taking place in real time (and without cutting away) – we get a real sense of the distances travelled and the changing geography of the setting. With its rat-infested bunkers – the shell-cratered battlefield; littered with half-buried corpses is truly a nightmare to behold; the horror being hammered home even more by authentic reactions from the two leads.

As played by Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) and George McKay (How I Live Now) – our leads are sympathetic and likeable and share an authentic chemistry together. Whilst the remainder of the arguably more recognizable British supports (including Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch) are uniformly excellent and perfectly cast in their roles.

This is one of those rare films where the setting is as much a character – as the characters themselves (in terms of war movies – Coppola’s Apocalypse Now immediately springs to mind). Indeed, the film’s setting is so keenly realized (with a potential threat around every corner) – it could conceivably be considered an antagonist in its own right. Adding to the verisimilitude, the production design by Dennis Gassner (Miller’s Crossing, Road to Perdition, Blade Runner 2049) is authentic and highly-detailed. While the deliberately understated score by Thomas Newman (The Green Mile, Passengers) does a great job in sustaining tension.

Director of Photography Roger Deakins (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Barton Fink, Blade Runner 2049) has well and truly established himself as a master cinematographer. And with 1917, he has once again delivered images which are not only strikingly beautiful (predominantly utilizing available light) – but also shots which are so astonishing in their mobility, they will be studied and pondered over for decades to come.

Perhaps the most immersive (not to mention suspenseful) wartime drama since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, Sam Mendes’ 1917 may well be one of the greatest war films ever made. Indeed, I’d even go so far as to say the cinema-going experience was designed for movies like this. Don’t miss it.

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, January 12th 2020

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

2 Comments
  1. Agree with you completely Greg, this is a MOVIE in big bold letters and all the better for it. You don’t need big explosions or CGI set pieces (this film is remarkably restrained in that department) to make an epic, just taut direction, fine acting and a really good script. Mind, the glorious cinematography of Roger Deakins certainly helps. I can’t imagine we’ll see a better film all this year- at least until Villeneuve’s Dune arrives. I have such high hopes for that one.

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