1917 Review: Magnificent and Intimate WWI Spectacle

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Beneath its chief “one-shot” gimmick to lure audiences into the cinema, 1917 boasts a powerful narrative of the sprawling conflicts of an even larger conflict creates, of the wearing fear sheer solidarity entails, and of brotherhood under the direst of conditions, penned masterfully by first-time screenwriter and director Sam Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. It latches onto its intimate moments with a firm grip, playing as clear favorites as they are sprinkled heavily throughout the film. The gruesome and disturbing imagery from revolutionary cinematographer Roger Deakins juxtaposes this intimacy just as capably, matching the hefty emotional weight its leading performers portray in their characters. 1917 may strain during its middle portions when Mendes most relates the film to other cinematic works in its characterization and storytelling, occasionally losing the flair its opening moments so magnificently worked, but it isn’t nearly enough to topple what is an absolute masterpiece of World War I film-making, coupling innovative craft and ambitiously scoped storytelling. Mendes and company have weaved together easily one of the best films of the year (a phrase I have had the absolute pleasure of saying for many films in recent weeks) but also an utter classic for the genre.

Detailing the fictional tale of Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay) to deliver an urgently time-sensitive message to prevent a strategic disaster on the British’s side, 1917 presents a premise not unlike that of the sprawling epics that has transcended both time and basic criticism such as The Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings, and the film is most certainly aware of its own gravitas that punctuates nearly every scene. Like Christopher Nolan’s excellently realized Dunkirk, time always persists as the greatest enemy, pressuring and even cunningly deceiving the leading protagonists around numerous corners. Director Sam Mendes appears to have a complete understanding of every facet working in 1917 making use of every single one, from Thomas Newman’s heart-pounding scores to George Mackay’s revolutionary turn as the corporal Schofield. It’s some of his best work as a director, and it is sure to land him a seat at the prized table of nominated directors at this year’s Academy Awards.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

But what is sure to leave the largest impression on its audiences is undoubtedly Roger Deakins’ fantastic cinematography. Coming off Blade Runner 2049 and his preceding Oscars win, Deakins has established himself as a figure that has firmly placed themselves in the modern-day landscape, showing neither regret nor longing for the past. What that means is Deakins uses the innovative camera techniques of today to create jaw-dropping sequences that tear at the spirit. Despite being set in the titular year 1917, the film possesses a modern, 2019 look, being audacious in its approach; Deakins will most certainly garner awards praise as he most certainly should. Regarding the “one-shot” framing that Universal Pictures has harped on since the infancy of the film’s marketing campaign, the trick works as well as the audience can suspend its disbelief and soak in the rich production design and sets. Yes, through certain cues of extended darkness and even a full black-out transition courtesy of editor (), it’s obvious to anyone that 1917 has created cunning escapes out of the gimmick for itself which in turn, mildly dampens the impact of the feature. After all, 1917 stepped into the light largely because of this one element, and the fact that its faults amidst what is undoubtedly a pristine technical achievement are so painstakingly obvious lessens the impact of the roaring explosions and frantic action.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Sure to be breakout performers in the coming years, 1917 is spearheaded by two young actors who do marvelous work in their respective roles. While certain narrative elements clearly restrict one member of the duo in a clear supporting role (described in this way so as to avoid spoiling the film), Mackay is magnificent as Schofield, stepping into the physically demanding and intimate moments with the same level of active yet subdued confidence; it’s a roaring achievement on his part. This isn’t to take anything away from Dean-Charles Chapman as Blake who maintains the intense focus of the film for the entire first act. The emotional resonance behind his character’s journey to save his brother from surely an apocalyptic end doesn’t quite land, however, it is a problem that should be more attributed to the screenplay rather than Chapman as a performer himself.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In conclusion, 1917 is a composition of World War I spectacle and heart-pounding storytelling, balanced in a way that only a master of the medium like director Sam Mendes could do. Bringing out the best in every technical department, especially the cinematography and production design, Mendes has accomplished one of the greatest directorial achievements of the entire year for the physical complexities of the job alone, but this isn’t just a one-man ship as 1917 is eager to reveal and magnify its components. 1917 may be set in the desolate and grimy time of World War I, but its overall sum as a film extends far beyond time itself, elevated to one of the best theatrical releases in recent memory.

At the height of the First World War, two young British soldiers, Schofield (Captain Fantastic's George MacKay) and Blake (Game of Thrones' Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers--Blake's own brother among them.

1917 Releases on December 25th, 2019 in Limited Release.

Supporting Film, Literature, and Gaming Since June 1st, 2018.

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