World War One took place over a hundred years ago and these days it feels like a battle from a bygone era, almost as fantastic and bizarre as the sword and shield blues of medieval times. The trenches teeming with rats and disease, the soldiers facing the threat of newly industrialised weaponry and the sheer appalling scale of it all make for rich and vivid cinematic territory. In 1917, director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) takes full visual advantage of the setting, delivering one of his most beautiful films to date, however, he isn’t quite as successful in exploring some of the weightier themes.
1917 is the simple tale of two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) who are given the unenviable mission to deliver a message regarding a German ambush. If they fail, 1,600 soldiers stand to lose their lives, including Blake’s brother. The pair set off almost immediately and the following 119 minutes or so take place in a single continuous shot (with a handful of cheats) that tracks their mission from start to finish.
Because the mission takes place in (mostly) real time, there’s not a lot of room for lengthy nuanced discussion. That’s not to say that 1917 is an action film, but it’s certainly not ponderous, moving through eerily abandoned trenches, ruined villages and no man’s land in a flowing, often dreamlike fashion. The result is a very stagey film, that feels more like a poet’s impression of war rather than a realistic portrayal, quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it works, and the one-shot technique often comes across more like a clever gimmick, rather than a choice that adds import to the slender script.
Chapman and MacKay are both perfectly fine as the main soldiers, and are backed up by cameos from the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, but there’s something distancing about the piece overall. It feels more like an extended video game cutscene, beautiful but contrived, rather than a war film that will live in your soul forever. To put it bluntly, it’s good but it’s no Gallipoli.
That said, props to Sam Mendes for stepping outside of his recent Bond film comfort zone and tackling an ambitious project like this. The film serves as both movie and tribute to Mendes’ grandfather (who fought in the war) and in that it succeeds. However, it’s just too artificial and removed from the grittier realities of war and devoid of character development to attain the status of war movie classic. A triumph of style, and a beautiful looking film, it’s just a pity it didn’t have more to say.