1917: Behind enemy lines
Having done double-duty in the James Bond series with Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015), director/producer Sam Mendes returns to more somber, if no less stylish, fare with 1917, an absorbing World War I saga he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, inspired by a story tale told him by his grandfather.
The narrative doesn’t cover the entire year 1917 but the span of a few days in the spring, as World War I rages. The principal characters are a pair of young corporals, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are ordered to proceed to the front with orders to call off a major attack. The Germans have feigned a retreat in order to ambush the soldiers at the front.
Blake, whose brother is stationed at the front, is raring to go, but Schofield is understandably wary, and the muttered sentiment that theirs is a suicide mission doesn’t soothe his nerves any.
The film opens with an incredible tracking shot that follows the two soldiers through the trenches, except it doesn’t stop. Indeed, it never stops; the entire film is one long, continuous tracking shot that follows the duo’s every move, sweeping around them but always keeping them close to the frame. It may be a gimmick, but it’s a remarkable and successful one and brings an immediacy to the story – which is rather a simple one – that it might not have otherwise had.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins, who finally won an Academy Award on his 14th nomination (for Blade Runner 2049 last year) may well find himself in competition again this year. 1917 may not have a great story, but it’s unquestionably a great cinematic experience. Deakins captures the desolation, the destruction, the surreal, and even the horrific beauty of the battle-ravaged landscape, across which Schofield and McKay perilously travel.
Despite the presence of such well-known British stars as Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch, theirs are essentially cameo roles. MacKay and Chapman are appropriately earnest in their performances, yet they too are overshadowed by the visual wizardry. At the heart of the story is a coming-of-age tale, and for certain both come of age during this mission.
Some comparisons have been made to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), itself a tribute to the courage of the British, albeit during World War II, but 1917 also recalls Peter Weir’s World War I drama Gallipoli (1981), which also focused primarily on two soldiers, in that case, Mel Gibson and Mark Lee.
The level of technical achievement is staggering, but the level of emotional involvement is not. 1917 is absorbing enough, but although the outcome of this particular mission may be in doubt, the outcome of the war is not. Yet, it’s still a worthy work, one that reinforces the notion that war is truly hell. World War I might have been labeled the Great War, but its reality – and that of any war — was anything but great.
– 1917 opens Friday
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