1917 (2019). All grim on the Western Front in this World War I drama

Film still 1917 starring Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay
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image four star rating very good lots to enjoy

Film review by Jason Day of 1917, the World War I drama about two young soldiers who must deliver an important message. Directed by Sam Mendes and starring George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman.

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Synopsis

During World War I, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is asked to pick a fellow ‘Tommy’ to accompany him on a new and secret mission.

Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) agrees to join him but the mission turns out to be more than grabbing supplies from the Germans.

They journey into the hell, beyond ‘No Man’s Land’ to ensure 1,600 men don’t go ‘over the top’ and risk their lives based on false intelligence.

Review, by @Reelreviewer

The aim is to immerse the viewer in a propulsive, at times headlong journey that travels like a lit fuse.

Time magazine on the continuous take style used in 1917.

There is a time and a moment to eat popcorn in a cinema. Watching 1917 is not one of them.

Sat through the almost infinite adverts and trailers, my hungry self merrily chomped its way through a bag of salty popcorn, a chocolate bar and guzzled a bottle of water.

Evidence of gluttony…but soon the stomach doth turn!

But following a breezy opening as Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman) stroll toward a meeting about their mission, my chomping faced a challenge.

As these chaps continued – in a continuous take – into increasing horror and hell, with bodies and bits and humans and horses nibbled by rats and flies as assiduously as I did with my snacks – suddenly my consumption rate fell away to nothing.

It seems that shots of vermin feasting on men’s innards is enough to put even a pig such as I off its grubbage.

Lesson learned – when watching more hard-hitting film fare, limit yourself to water alone. Now, back to the review.

The first notice about 1917 was a very human touch – the ‘street’ and information signs in the trenches. this isn’t a period of history I’m familiar with, but seeing ‘Church Ave.’ writ large and clear made so much sense. How else would soldiers find their way around the bewildering rabbit warren network that these hell holes were? Perhaps such familiar naming gave them a sense of continuity from home and comfort.

Home sweet home? Lieutenant Leslie (Andrew Scott) contemplates his existence in a boozed-up fog in 1917 (2019). Image: E-One.

1917 has been cited for some time as the definitive cinematic account of World War I and it is certainly a very good film. But there are other, more feted productions to bear in mind when making such a claim.

Take the fancy chicanery of the extended, continuous, single shot gimmick away and 1917 comes up short against Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (also 1930), Jean Renoir;s La Grande Illusion (1937), Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).

Even D.W. Griffith’s epic tone poem Hearts of the World (1918) could give 1917 a run for its money, at least in terms of cinematographic beauty and Lillian Gish’s impassioned performance as the French peasant girl.

Robert Harron and Lillian Gish wear their hearts (of the world) on their sleeves, way back in 1918.

These films all had other good points in spades, whether political potency, emotional whack or romantic throb but 1917‘s use of the single – seemingly continuous – take makes sure the audience is gripped from the start and unable to easily divorce itself from the odyssey its characters embark on.

There is fun in spotting where the cuts actually happened. It’s the same with Birdman – where this film takes its cue – so keep an eye on scenes where there are huge close-ups on the characters backs as they enter and leave a trench-room meeting with Colin Firth’s General and when Chapman is thrown to the floor after the trip-wire explosion in a German trench.

All is not quiet on the front. Colin Firth maps out a plan in 1917 (2019). Image: E-One.

I was concerned when the film first started that I was going to be hurled head-long in for a two hour slog about two lads traipsing through muddy fields.

Aside from spotting cinematic jiggery-pokery, this stylistic approach avoids accusations of being gimicky and tricksy because it focuses audience attention on how intense and unrelenting WWI conflict was.

It never lets up…so why should you whilst watching a recreation of it?

The performance structure is commendably egalitarian. Big, huge cinema actors pepper the movie in tiny, but narratively important parts. Colin Firth starts the action which follows through until Benedict Cumberbatch concludes it, in as brusque a manner as you might expect from a senior infantryman.

But at the top is the actor portraying a man from the lower rungs. George MacKay’s innocent face first caught my attention when I saw him in Pride (2014).

George MacKay as Schofield in 1917 (2019). Image: E-One.

This must be why he was chosen to lead this movie. His sweet, naive, almost blank visage proves to be the right canvas for audiences to paint their own interpretations of his character’s feelings.

It’s a singular, isolated performance but then, his character is on a singular mission, a trek to deliver a message.

1917 is more than just two lads trudging through mud and sludge, but there is a bit of ‘survivalist porn’ to it, such as I saw in The Revenant (2015).

Flies buzz around dead horses, MacKay falls and squishes his hand into a corpse and, toward the end of the movie, he escapes a river by clambering over the bloated corpses of many men, their skin pasty white and tongues bulging out of their mouths.

For more, see the official movie’s website.

Cast & credits

Director: Sam Mendes. 1hr 59mins/119 mins. Amblin Partners/Dreamworks/Neal Street Productions/New Republic Pictures. (15).

Producers: Pippa Harris, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver, Jayne-Ann Tenggren.
Writers: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns.
Camera: Roger Deakins.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Sets: Dennis Gassner.

George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch. Pip Carter, Andy Apollo, Claire Duburcq.

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