1917 review: more than just a one-take wonder

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Sam Mendes’ Oscar-nominated wartime thriller transcends the one-shot hype quite spectacularly – here’s our review of 1917.

Has any filmmaker made more of their best films after winning the Oscar than Sam Mendes? 1999’s American Beauty may have been a striking debut feature, but Road To Perdition, Jarhead, and the towering achievement of Skyfall show a director who has gone from strength to strength ever since. After 20 years, he’s finally back in the heart of the awards season conversation with his latest effort, 1917.

Understandably, much of that chatter has focused on the film’s cinematography. Mendes opened his second, less-loved James Bond film Spectre with a bravura tracking shot, and here he’s using that same technique to a much more meaningful extent. Just as we found Daniel Craig’s 007 weaving through the hurly-burly of a Day Of The Dead parade, 1917 provides an unblinking feature-length perspective on two British lance corporals in the incomprehensible chaos of the Western front.

It’s April of the titular year and our protagonists, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are charged with hand-delivering a message that will decide the fate of thousands of British soldiers. With a matter of hours to go before a decisive attack commences, the two young men embark on a breakneck dash across enemy lines to prevent 1,600 men – Blake’s brother among them – from walking into an ambush by the Germans.

For some film fans, the artifice of this approach may be more obvious and distracting at feature-length than in as part of an otherwise conventionally edited movie. If, for instance, you’ve already seen a legit one-take wonder like Sebastian Schipper’s jaw-dropping crime thriller Victoria, you may find the techniques being used here less immersive than the story itself.

Indeed, at first glance, the over-the-shoulder tracking lumbers the film with the distinct vibe of watching someone else play a Call Of Duty game. But on the other hand, Mendes and co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns know better than to let the early travelling scenes play to dead air and their superb screenplay offers a nice (albeit functional) line in anecdotes and repartee to keep the audience engaged in between bouts of exposition and life-and-death drama.

The adrenaline-fuelled second hour brings more pulse-pounding set-pieces than the first, but it’s our attachment to Chapman and MacKay that ramps up the tension for the duration. They carry the film squarely on their shoulders and for our money, although both actors are terrific, it’s MacKay who emerges as the most valuable player. If you don’t already think of him as a movie star from his stellar filmography, that’s definitely about to change.

The flawless casting seems to be one of the film’s unduly under-sung triumphs. Around our two leads, Mendes lines up some of our greatest actors for little more than three minutes of screen-time apiece. Many of these stars have been glimpsed in the trailers for the film, but in context, their eye-catching screen presence has the effect of reminding us that there are no bit players in this conflict – even if the mission isn’t theirs, every life is crucial in this war, whether they’re being portrayed by a featured extra or an Academy Award nominee.

Even if you have nit-picks with the decision to shoot and present the film as one take, there’s no faulting the results. The action feels urgent throughout the running time, and a terrifying night-time run-around in the village of Écoust-Saint-Mein should be enough to earn Roger Deakins his second Oscar for Best Cinematography all by itself. You can’t help but notice that it’s not an uninterrupted 119-minute shot, but heck, the choreography alone is impressive enough for any number of shorter shots.

1917 ends with a dedication to Mendes’ grandfather Alfred, whose wartime remembrances served as the seed for the film’s story. As a ground-level thriller that never flinches from either the confusing futility of the war or the bottomless resolve of the characters within it, the film makes a harrowing, invigorating, and utterly cinematic spectacle of those tales.


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