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A terrible beauty.
That’s the first thing that comes to mind when watching the latest from director Sam Mendes. A tale of human suffering re-told in style of Greek myth, 1917 is consistently impressive in its cinematography, but the technical ambition threatens to overpower the simple story it’s telling.
Two young corporals must deliver a message to the frontline. An attack is about to take place the following morning, which would result in the deaths of thousands. No wires are operational and no car can traverse the unpredictable terrain. All that remains is their will and fortitude.
Shot by industry legend Roger Deakins, every single shot in the film is a technical marvel. From the very first sequence, where our messengers traverse from open fields to cramped trenches in a flurry of mobilization, there’s a constant sense of wonder at play. How did they film this? How many times did they reshoot this scene? Everything looks and feels real to the point that you want to reach out and touch it.
There’s a beautifully simple structure to 1917.
The plot is threadbare to say the least, but it grows into mythic stature in the telling. Traveling alongside the ill-fated messengers we witness multiple changes in the landscape, from the beautiful to unrecognizable. For the first time in years there is a scope to the war that we can understand. Anchoring the film are short waypoints where members of British acting royalty provide comfort to both audience and characters. Instead of detracting from the story they bring familiarity and solace. Through sheer starpower we understand their stature and why someone would follow their lead. That might be our superficial need to apply stature to recognizable actors, but the results speak for themselves.
The film is carried by stellar performances by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Chapman brings tender levity to the young and desperately naive Blake, while MacKay’s long suffering face has endless geography of the soul to explore. One of the great sequences in the film follows his worn out expression go from desperation to determination in one single take. How he isn’t on any of the shortlists for awards this year is beyond me.
Presented as one unbroken shot, 1971 is composed of multiple long takes stitched together by clever editing. These range from highly immersive to surprisingly off-putting. A night time raid lit only by flares is hauntingly beautiful, while a detour to an impromptu soliloquy in the woods comes off as stagey. It doesn’t detract from the big picture during viewing, only later the seams become apparent.
The same goes for the gimmick, which feels like a rude word to use in this context as any overreaching here should be praised, not criticized. But it can’t be helped that at times the film would have been more impactful without the need to apply flourish. There’s only one obvious cut halfway in the film and its presence is all the more pronounced and dramatically satisfying because we notice it.
But it’s because we notice it that’s the issue. 1917 strives for immersion, but in doing so stages the action so meticulously it achieves the opposite. Nothing is inherently wrong, but the lingering cinematography and highly choreographed movements make the war feel like an elaborate dance. In theory, Stanley Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY is equally stagey. But there is a romanticization to the war which feels incongruous with the message in the story. Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns mine from true stories passed down by Mendes’ grandfather, and there’s an inherent reverence that comes in the re-telling.
What little its faults are, there’s no denying that 1917 is a breathtaking achievement in filmmaking. Mirroring its own story, 1917 finds victory in achieving the near impossible, even when the results aren’t as neat as initially hoped for.