Finally freed from the shackles of the James Bond franchise, and endowed with confirmed skills as a director of action, Sam Mendes has finally returned to capital-P Prestige cinema with 1917, a deeply personal yet oddly removed World War I film that, if nothing else, features one hell of a gimmick. Partially inspired by tales of his own grandfather’s service in the trenches over in France, 1917 tells the story of two young English soldiers — the battle-scarred Schofield (George MacKay), and the jollier Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — who are tasked by their superior, General Erinmore (Colin Firth), with an urgent mission: To prevent a massacre. An entire battalion — nearly 1600 young men — is about to be sent over the top to attack what they believe to be a retreating German force. What they don’t realize is that the Germans have strategically fallen back, and will decimate the advancing English troops with artillery in the open fields. Blake’s brother is amongst those men, and he’s specifically chosen for the task because his personal connection to the company might hasten his movements. So, the two embark on a day’s journey across the war-torn countryside, surrounded by death on all sides.
Mendes decided early on to tell the film “in a single unbroken shot,” which is a somewhat deceptive phrase, given that the production took a month or so to film, and is edited, though it is well-concealed (that said, you can see the seams a bit). He chose the best possible partner in this endeavor: Having tried to get Hoyte van Hoytema to imitate the master’s work in Spectre, it seems that Mendes has learned to accept no substitutes for a cinematographer like Roger Deakins. Paired with Mendes’ brilliant set designers, Deakins’ frames emphasizes the grime and horror of the trenches — shell-marred bodies littering the landscape, bloated corpses forming makeshift dams in rivers, rotting horses embedded in barbed wire — Deakins truly makes the setting come alive in ways that other films about the same time period often fail to. It often feels like filmmakers and writers try to skate around the true brutality of this conflict (one only needs to watch War Horse to see how a master filmmaker can elide the gore and grit of the meat grinder that was the Western Front), and Mendes and his crew should be commended for cutting through the bullshit here to deliver us something approximating the truth of the experience, at least in its tactile setting.
Deakins’ work here is, per usual, superlative, and it’s impressive how he manages to fit specific shot ideas within Mendes’ framework, which feels incredibly difficult. Given that the frame dictates the pace and the rhythm here, as opposed to the edit, he is required to tell a lot of the story through camera movement. It would be easy for another cinematographer to lose their own identity beneath the weight of Mendes’ aesthetic choice, but Deakins never waivers and asserts himself frequently. There’s one astonishingly beautiful scene between MacKay and a young French mother whom he meets upon his travels, who is hiding out from the Germans who have swarmed her village, and his warm lighting and floating camera makes the entire scene feel surreally beautiful. Likewise, a later sequence involving a river is astonishingly staged and is undeniably gorgeous at the exact same time that it’s horrifying. MacKay often proves to be the glue necessary to hold the film together, with his deep, expressive eyes shouldering the emotional work that the film’s dialogue can’t muster thanks to its constraints. The 27-year-old English actor holds his own with an assortment of greats — Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden — and makes a strong case for his placement on the list of the most skilled young actors working today, and I’d be willing to wager that you’ll be seeing quite a bit of him further on down the line.
Much of 1917’s construction feels like a response to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with some criticisms feeling a little more obvious than others. For one, there’s the issue of diversity, as Nolan’s film was often called and criticized at the time of its release for ignoring the contributions or, more accurately, the existence of any number of non-white English soldiers on the beaches of France; and Mendes seeks to provide a response, highlighting the presence of Indian and African troops in the trenches. And it’s single-shot construction feels like a challenge directly to Nolan from one of his successful contemporaries, as if he’s trying to say that one can create the same unbearable tension without relying on the one easiest tool in the filmmaker’s kit, and that influence extends to the pacing and usage of time within the narrative itself. Mendes wants to make sure that things are unfolding in as close to real-time as possible, though he does cheat a bit. Is it more successful at creating tension than Dunkirk was? No, it isn’t, though it often comes damn close, but it’s the film’s never totally able to distance the audience from the knowledge of its making — a feat Nolan, relying on more traditional methods, never had to really worry about.
I can’t even imagine how difficult 1917 must have been to put together — though I’ve frequently been reminded of that fact by the ad that played in front of every single movie released at Regal Cinemas this fall — and a whole lot of it is genuinely terrific, especially when Mendes allows the gimmick to fade into the background. An incredibly tense sequence set in an abandoned bunker, after one of the year’s best-executed jump scares, gives way to a full-fledged action escape from its collapsing tunnel system, and the single-shot choice proves its merit.
Yet, there are any number of sequences in the film where it lands kind of flatly, where the tension goes flat and we’re just watching a camera hover about as our characters do minor actions and make small talk. Others have pointed out how the film occasionally feels like you’re watching someone play a video game (perhaps over Twitch or Mixer or something), and that feels accurate enough. But that’s really the question with every film like this, where a single aesthetic choice dominates the entire production: Is it truly necessary? Well, no, not really. I can imagine this film working just as well if Mendes and company had made it in a traditional manner, and the choice occasionally gets in the way of 1917’s true power, but I won’t deny that it’s a one-of-a-kind and fascinating experience, one well-worth checking out in the largest-format theater that you can.