Settling down to 1917, you might be forgiven for suffering cinematic déjà vu. Just two years after Christopher Nolan wowed audiences with Dunkirk, another blockbuster British director has made a war film with gripping action, extremely strong performances and fancy filmmaking techniques. This time round it’s Sam Mendes, best known for arguably the best James Bond film, Skyfall. Rather than presenting his film across three different timelines as Nolan did, Mendes uses ingenious camerawork and precision editing to give the impression that the film is shot in one continuous take. As screen trickery goes, it leaves you breathless.
It’s a spring day in northern France in the third year of the First World War when Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of Game Of Thrones fame) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are sent on a secret mission across enemy lines. The young soldiers are tasked with getting a message to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to warn a British battalion that what appears to be a retreat by the Germans is actually an ambush. If the pair fail to deliver the news 1600 troops could be killed, with Blake’s brother among them. To reach their destination, Blake and Schofield must traverse a cratered no man’s land filled with barbed wire and dead bodies, before tackling booby-trapped bunkers, hungry rats and, inevitably, German soldiers with murderous intent.
For Mendes, 1917 is clearly a personal story. The director based the film loosely on a war tale told to him by his grandfather and there’s a strong, truthful pull to the scenes between Blake and Schofield, particularly when family comes up in discussion. There’s enough tension and threat in their mission to ensure things don’t descend into mawkishness and the pace of the film rarely flags. We’re always aware that the clock is ticking and want to see our heroes’ message delivered almost as much as they do.
This is partly because of technical excellence – Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins somehow makes desolation look beautiful, while Lee Smith, who also won an Oscar for editing Dunkirk, displays a mastery of his craft.
Yet, though it looks striking and feels exciting, the reason we ultimately care about a story we’ve seen before in epics such as Saving Private Ryan, is empathy. Chapman and, especially, Mackay are superb – likeable but as imperfect and scared as most wartime combatants would be. Cumberbatch and Colin Firth – as the general that sends the men on their journey – are the pick of the rest of a cast that is, perhaps unsurprisingly given the setting, almost entirely white, male and British, though Claire Duburcq nails the small part she has.
1917 may suffer slightly from a lack of narrative originality and an over-familiar setting, but Mendes, his crew and cast have made a believably human film about men caught up in a truly inhuman conflict.
- Director: Sam Mendes
- Starring: Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden
- Release Date: 10 January 2020