1917 gets 9/10 One shot wonder

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch


Have you ever taken a long walk, and looked back at your point of origin feeling that the distance you covered seems almost superhuman? A similar sensation can be felt when reflecting on Sam Mendes’ new World War I epic 1917, and a lot of it has to do with the notable fact that the film is edited to appear as if it was one long continuous shot. A film undertaking such efforts could easily fall into the trap of using the technique as a gimmick, but luckily Mendes (finally giving Bond films a rest after Skyfall and Spectre) seems intent here on reminding audiences of what he is capable of as a filmmaker. One shot conveys the experience of this journey through the trenches, and beyond the often hellish landscapes of no man’s land, spanning miles of bad road. Whilst used in admirable ways to empower the film, the use of the one shot presentation does also offer moments of giddy spectacle which would make Alfonso Cuaron feel a little upstaged.

The film has support from a well-known cast, with Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch encountered along the journey, and strong performances come from the focus of the film: Corporals Blake (Dean Charles) and Schofield (George MacKay) look like they have been plucked from Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. They are charged with a dangerous march against the clock to deliver orders which are vital in preventing an entire Battalion from being ambushed by German forces. A mission made personal for Blake, as his brother is among the battalion.

With a film such as this needing such obviously meticulous planning, it never feels rehearsed, and the camera is able to find moments of great composition, thanks to Director of Photography Roger Deakins. A standout sequence depicts a shelled out town after nightfall, lit by the shifting and disorientating light of enemy flares that is one of the more visually striking scenes seen in a War film in quite a while. The production design by Dennis Gassner (who knocked it out of the park in Blade Runner 2049) makes 1917 feel like the first WWI film to adequately realise the profound horrors of trench war, and within the confines of a single shot, there is surely nowhere to hide as a production designer.

Striking transitions are shown as we follow the leads through the back of busy British trenches and out to the shell-shocked, frightened, and shaky inhabitants of front lines. The incremental changes in environment and soldiers seen along the way is remarkable, and every inch of this trek is crafted and choreographed to the point where the activity of looking for the “seams” in the editing of this epic will likely be forgotten.

For an ambitious war film, 1917 is well restrained, and avoids committing the sins and indulgences of most war films.  Mendes trusts in the emotional gravity found in realism here rather than imposing melodrama, avoiding the trap of becoming bloated and cumbersome. Thomas Newman’s score is great, and yet doesn’t intrude on the experience at any point. It can be emotionally taxing, but will leave you feeling relieved at the conclusion of what is two hours of highly tense viewing. Rather than being a film about the conflict, it’s concerned with the soldier’s experience, and perhaps one of the best uses of the long shot ever committed to film. 1917 will very likely be a film which resonates, and stays with audiences.


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