One of the year’s most anticipated films of the year, Sam Mendes’s 1917 has arrived in cinemas this week in the UK. On the back of it’s release, the film has gained 10 nominations at this year’s Academy Awards (the joint second most nominations of the year) and 9 nominations at the BAFTA Film Awards and also won Best Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year. So… there was a hell of a lot of hype going into see this film.
And, for the most part, it lives up to the hype. Being Mendes’s writing debut, the film is based of Mendes’s grandfather’s real life experiences in the World War 1. The plot centres on two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are given a mission to hand-deliver a message to another Battalion, which orders them to call off an attack on German forces. However, they must travel through dangerous and life-threatening landscapes in order to get the message there safely.
Much has been discussed about how it seems as though the film is all done in one continuous shot. This is not necessary true – there is one obvious cut and there are a lot more cuts that are made to seem invisible – but overall, it has sensation of feeling like it is all done in one shot. The film follows suit of various audacious films, with the most famous examples including Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rope (1948) and the 2014 Best Picture winner, Birdman. Sometimes, these type of films can work or they can fail, but for the most part, 1917 really works.
One of the main reasons for the film’s success is the stunning cinematography by the fantastic Roger Deakins. Over his almost 40 years in the film business, Deakins has made a name for himself for being probably the greatest cinematographer working today. He has lend his hand to some fantastic films over the years, and has worked with various high-profile directors, including the Coen brothers (with Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit), Denis Villeneuve (with Sicario, Blade Runner 2049 and Prisoners), and this time, reunites with Mendes after working with him on Revolutionary Road (2008) and the bond film, Skyfall (2012).
His work throughout this film is equally as fantastic, where the cinematography remains as stunning, gorgeous and very creative as all his other work. One of the best shots from the film is a night-time landscape of ruins, which will now and then, become illuminated by various flares and bombs going off in the background. It’s these sort of shots that make the film extremely dazzling and beautiful, but still reflect the true horror of war. It is by far the best cinematography I’ve seen for a movie all year, and Deakins should and probably will, win his second (yes, that right, he’s only previously won one award) Oscar for his work.
The film also largely succeeds because of the brilliant direction by Mendes. The director, who has done equal work on film (with various critically acclaimed films such as American Beauty (1999), Road to Perdition (2002) and Skyfall) and theatre, uses his theatre background here, in what I can imagine, must have needed a lot of rehearsal time to make sure that these long shots (with the reportedly longest time being 8 minutes long) don’t go wrong.
Some of the most brilliant shots of the film include a shot tracking Schofield run, unarmed, through a dangerous battlefield, as well as a tense shot of a plane crashing near the two leads of which they have to run and hide from. The only problem is that a lot of these brilliant shots have already been ruined by the trailers. So if you haven’t seen the trailer yet, don’t watch them before watching the film.
The skill with Mendes’s direction is that it’s very fast-paced and brisk. The problem with some one-take films they can lack a sense of tension and urgency, however, this never happens here – it is a tension-filled, adrenaline ride from near the beginning to the very end, which is only made worse by it’s real time, race against the clock conceit. The tension is also aided by the brilliant score by the always reliable Thomas Newman, which, while not being too powerful, largely creates a suspenseful and thrilling atmosphere.
Mendes’s script is also quite impressive, especially for a first-time screenwriter. The dialogue is few and far between, as Mendes here wants to create a purely cinematic movie (which he is very successful at doing), but when there is dialogue, it is very natural dialogue between Schofield and Blake that establishes a truthful, realistic and honest relationship between the two young men. The film also has some really emotional, funny and surreal moments, including a strange moment when Schofield stops by a band of singing soldiers, and a moment where Schofield has a heartfelt exchange with a young woman and her adopted baby in the midst of all the war. It’s these sort of moments that ease the tension slightly, while still not ruining the pace altogether.
The two lead performances by MacKay and Chapman, are very good, only made more impressive by how young the pair are. MacKay has been a rising star for many years now (including appearances in the films, Pride (2014), Captain Fantastic (2016) and Marrowbone (2018)), but Chapman feels feels pretty much new on the scene (however, he did have a big role in Game of Thrones). If this film is anything to go by, they will soon be stars in the future. The pair’s mostly unknown status also largely fits well in the film as they can be the everyman that the audience can easily engage with. While MacKay and Chapman centrally lead the film, there are many cameo appearances by bigger, more well-known actors, like Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, which are all real pleasure to see.
The only downside to the film is that sometimes the film lacks real emotion. The two lead actors are great, but the film just lacks a bit of in-depth characterisation, particularly Schofield – we don’t know anything about him or his background. This is largely due to the constraints of it’s single take format as the characters cannot really grow and change that much over the course of a few hours. The script from Mendes is very good, but – on his next scripts, maybe – he could just add a little more depth.
However, this is slightly nitpicking as overall this is one of the best films of the year. Although, I am rooting the mesmerising and brilliant Parasite for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars (it would be great to see The Irishman or Little Women win, though), 1917 would be a perfectly fine film to win. A real triumph for Mendes, indeed.