Directed by Sam Mendes and based in part on an account told to Mendes’ grandfather, 1917 tells the story of two young British soldiers – Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) – during the First World War who are ordered to deliver a message calling off an attack that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap. This message is especially important as Blake’s brother is due to take part in the attack, but it is a race against time.
As soon as I heard that director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins (who have worked together on Skyfall, Jarhead, and Revolutionary Road) were working on a new film together, I was in. No matter what the story, it was obvious that this was going to be a stunning film that needed to be seen on the big screen. My baby arriving four weeks early and the subsequent lockdown meant that I missed out on that opportunity which I had been planning for weeks, but I made sure to give this film my full attention when I was finally able to view it at home.
And even though I only got to see it on the small screen, I’m still utterly blown away by its quality. It’s such a visually enthralling film. Every set piece, location, and effect is flawless. From the detail of the barracks, the attention to the layout of lifeless bodies, and the quality of the flames burning in the night, 1917 is like a continuous piece of art.
What I love most about this film is that Mendes wanted to do something different. Using long takes to have the entire film appear as two continuous shots, you feel like you’re on this race alongside the two soldiers. There are certain scenes that will grab your attention as to how well this technique works, but you do also stop noticing it at various points. But it’s not done to be in your face. The fluidity that it gives the storytelling is subtle but massively impressive at the same time, completely immersing you in the experience.
The film also stars newcomers George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman in the lead role, while acting royalty Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, and Benedict Cumberbatch star in supporting roles. This was a great move by Mendes, giving MacKay and Chapman their moment in the spotlight, while also including some big names to pull in viewers who may not have heard of them. But MacKay, especially, doesn’t need any backing up. He could have led this all on his own. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, so I’m glad Mendes gave him this stepping stone and that Mackay made the most out of such a fantastic opportunity.
The story itself, whatever level of truth lies in it, is gripping, compelling, and intense. You can feel the character’s hearts beating in their chests as they try to make it in time. The emotional connection wasn’t completely there for me, which is the only reason why I haven’t given the film five stars, but this is still an ambitious film that impresses on every level.
1917 is not only an accomplishment for a war film, but also in the filmmaking craft on a whole. Mendes is certainly a director to admire, and I will forever be chanting Roger Deakins’ name to win all of the cinematography awards.