Two young soldiers embroiled in World War I, Schofield (George Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), are tasked with a vital mission. They need to get an urgent communication so they can avert a disastrous attack and potentially save the lives of thousands. The two of them just need to make it through some of the most dangerous and hostile enemy territory first.
It’s hard to avoid talking about 1917 with focusing on the technical aspects of the film and rightly so, it’s a real feat of filmmaking. The film is shot to appear like a single unbroken tracking shot following Schofield and Blake through the trenches, fields and ruined townscapes of the War. I spent a lot of the film trying to spot the cuts, and there’s only one or two really obvious points in the film. It’s a truly spectacular piece of cinema and is executed perfectly.
The way the film is shot isn’t just a way of showing how technically gifted the filmmakers are, it genuinely adds to the sense of immersion with a tight and claustrophobic feel even when our heroes are walking through the wide-open fields of France.
The story itself is quite straightforward, Schofield and Blake are on a quest. The two of them are forced to make a seemingly impossible journey against all of the odds to try and save the day. Think of Lord of the Rings, which actually is rather fitting given Tolkien’s own experiences during the War inspiring his novels. While the story might be quite simple the film is not short of atmosphere and tension. Things start off at quite a relaxed and leisurely pace but once Schofield and Blake set out on their journey things really start to escalate.
1917 showcases the real horrors of war, and really doesn’t do much to shy away from the visceral nature of combat. Writer and director Sam Mendes is certainly not afraid to throw everything he can at our heroes. It’s a gruelling journey made even more exhausting by the close quarters and personal tracking shot.
The film is essentially a series of set pieces as Schofield and Blake progress from one stage to the next, where the end of level boss always seems to be a notable British actor. In other hands it could feel a little disjointed but the way that everything is shot adds a continuity to things that’s hard to shake.
It’s not just the technical elements of the film that are noteworthy, the two central performances are excellent with George Mackay being outstanding. We don’t get to find out too much about either of the leads but everything we need to know is there in the performances for us to see. They’re understated and thoughtful performances that highlight the human cost of conflict.
I was gripped by 1917, I think to say I enjoyed it would be the wrong word but it is certainly a compelling and frenetic ride. It certainly contains all of the familiar elements of a war movie but in a completely new and reinvigorated way.