Time Out says
Sam Mendes marries technical virtuosity with jittery thrills and an emotional core to reinvent the Great War movie – and deliver possibly his best film
A pure adrenaline hit of a movie that takes place mostly in the lethal glare of daylight, Sam Mendes’s stunning, sorta-single-take 1917 hits its greatest heights when darkness falls. A single British soldier dusts himself off from a glancing wound, wanders to the window of a broken-down house and, in one invisible cut, emerges magically into the skeletal, hellish remains of a French town. The abandoned settlement glows with orange hues as Thomas Newman’s score hits a rare crescendo. It’s at once an epic piece of filmmaking, the launchpad for the second half of the movie, and possibly the greatest “person walks into a town” moment in cinema since Claudia Cardinale strolled into Once Upon a Time in the West. Needless to say, in a film that only stops to reload, the soldier is soon running like hell.
Once Upon a Time on the Western Front – as you could subtitle Mendes’s nerve-fraying rollercoaster of a war movie – is a simple men-on-a-mission drama dressed up with all the technical bells and whistles at the director’s disposal. The men are Lance Cpls Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are summoned into the trenches for a hurried briefing with Colin Firth’s General Erinmore. The entire German army, it turns out, has hit reverse to the tune of about 8 miles, holing up behind the Hindenburg Line and waiting secretly for an unsuspecting British attack that will cost the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother. The mission? To deliver a message to stop the attack before morning. (“He travels the fastest who travels alone,” says the general, quoting a not-especially-reassuring bit of Kipling.)
Essentially, it’s the last 15 minutes of Gallipoli writ large. First, the duo braves the carnage of no-man’s land: an Otto Dix nightmare of half-buried corpses and giant rats. Blake is peppy and motivated by his personal stake; the more experienced Schofield is jaded and resentful about being dragged along. Then they, and the film, disappear into a subterranean realm below the German lines and suddenly it’s clear what Mendes has in mind: a quasi-horror movie where things go bump in the dark and light with equal frequency. Soon you’ll be quietly begging one of the men not to lift an innocent milk bucket in case it explodes in his face.
Even more so than Christopher Nolan’s time-twisting Dunkirk, 1917 impresses as a wildly audacious reinvention of the war genre. Attention will deservedly fall on Mendes’s Skyfall and Revolutionary Road cinematographer Roger Deakins, surely a shoo-in for his fifteenth Oscar nomination here. His restless camera glides, swoops and occasionally trudges alongside those men, frequently slipping into shallow focus. It offers us a disorienting, scary body-cam perspective of war.
Focus will also fall on the “one-continuous-take” device that makes 1917 such a relentless, immersive experience. As it happens, the technical feat is more Birdman or Gravity than Russian Ark or Victoria (the latter two of which were captured in mind-boggling single takes). Invisible edits – they’re damn hard to spot – stitch together two hours of screen time into a seamless whole. What prevents the virtuosity from overwhelming the storytelling is a performance of real depth from the impressive MacKay, and a genuine emotional heart that unfolds in a series of snatched moments and subtle motifs: a blood-stained photo here, a signet ring there.
The script (by Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns) not only honours the historical truth of this eerie moment in the war but exploits it to invite us into a strange, hellish hinterland even the greatest Great War films – Paths of Glory, All Quiet on the Western Front, Wooden Crosses, et al – haven’t explored. Scenes in the trenches bookend the movie but for most of the journey, the pair crosses an oddly bucolic landscape of cherry orchards, rivers and pastures. Against this backdrop, we get to know the men in a series of hurried exchanges. We also see reminders of their enemy’s ruthlessness, tallied in dead cows, chopped-down trees and burned-out houses.
If, at times, the near-ceaseless forward motion feels like video game (one with a classically-trained thesp as the big boss of every level: cameos include Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott), the overall mood bristles with authenticity. 1917 is a work of sweeping scale yet pinpoint intimacy. The war stories of Mendes’s own grandfather, a Great War veteran, inspired it, and you can feel those ghosts of the past in this film’s bones. Mendes Sr., it turns out, has possibly inspired his grandson’s best film.
Follow Phil de Semlyen on Twitter: @PhildeSemlyen
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