Director Sam Mendes’ eighth feature film is a dazzling technical achievement, and gripping depiction of the atrocities of war.
Family has always been at the centre of Mendes’ filmography, from the dissection of the typical US household in American Beauty, to the unexpected connection between James Bond and his nemesis in Spectre.
It’s a concept that re-emerges in 1917, both in front of the camera (one of the protagonists is driven by the need to save his brother) and behind it: the film is dedicated to the director’s grandfather, Alfred Mendes, whose wartime recollections inspired parts of the narrative.
The screenplay, written by Mendes himself alongside Krysty Wilson-Cairns, sets up a very classic ‘man on a mission’ premise: two British soldiers stationed in northern France, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and William Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with hand-delivering a letter to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment.
Failure to do so will result in a disastrous attack by the Germans, whose apparent retreat is actually a plan to ambush and kill 1600 men – including Blake’s brother.
Thus begins a long, perilous journey into enemy territory, a race against the clock that will test the two men’s endurance, and possibly redefine British involvement in World War I.
Mendes previously dealt with a different conflict, the Gulf War, in his third feature Jarhead, chronicling the boredom that comes with the wait for actual combat.
1917 is the polar opposite, showcasing the brutal side of the Great War in visceral detail, from the trenches to the open fields, applying a thriller structure to the tried and tested soldier narrative.
Much has been said, in the lead-up to the film’s release, about it being filmed and edited to appear as one continuous shot, and whether or not said technique comes across as a gimmick. It does, but only in the earliest stretches of the running time, when the mission is being set up.
Once Blake and Schofield are thrust into the action, the real-time element and in-your-face quality of the camera work makes the one-take illusion a very palpable one, a trick that works because the technical element never really draws attention to itself, being fully in service of the story.
As such, despite some big names in the supporting cast (most notably Colin Firth and a delightfully foul-mouthed Benedict Cumberbatch), the real star player is cinematographer Roger Deakins, working with Mendes for the fourth time and creating a visual landscape that feels real and nightmarish at the same time (the use of shadows in one key moment is spellbinding), and generally makes up for the script’s occasional hiccups.
1917 is Mendes’ most personal film to date and, when it truly soars, the perfect summation of his approach to cinema: a blend of the small and the epic, of the intimate and the ambitious, that warrants the biggest screen imaginable.
1917 will hit UK cinemas on 10th January.