The craftmanship and control that the most challenging of films demand of their crew is rarely apparent. Yet, through the mud, blood and darkness of World War One, in 1917 nothing shines through clearer than this. Sam Mendes has given us a film played out in (almost) real time and in (almost) one unbroken shot, and he never lets you forget it. Nor could you, for this is a haunting reel of violence and decay amidst the disease of war.
Lance Corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked to deliver a message to a Colonel about to lead 1,600 men into a trap – Blake’s brother among them. Their story, and the relationship between the two leads, is somewhat secondary to the presentation. Though MacKay and Chapman are deeply impressive, the narrative is at times burdened with moments of mundanity that the camerawork does its best to gloss over. MacKay in particular seems to capture both increasing weakness and strength as time goes on. Yet both are playing second fiddle to the horrible cacophony of wartime, played out like we have never seen or heard before.
Roger Deakins is no slacker when it comes to his work, but he has outdone himself here. Even when tasked with the mammoth task of the one-take-wonder (or at least the impression of one), he shoves in some utterly spellbinding views that capture both beauty and menace, drawing admiration without sacrificing drama. Even in broad daylight the gruesomeness often creeps up unnoticed, until something nasty is right in your face. The war is captured in all its detail, from the bustle and claustrophobia of the trenches to nauseating graveyards cast with dead bodies and barbed wire. All the while a chilling grey hangs over everything, while Thomas Newman’s unsettling score builds the dread further. The single take is no gimmick, but a way of forcing you to sit through every minute of wartime, with all of its horror and false hope.
No other film walks you through the characters, realities and sombreness of the trenches with the same relentless pace. Reality forms the texture of everything, from jovial banter in the back of a truck to shelling on the front lines. This meticulousness arguably holds the film back in the early stages, but works wonders for the finale, a finale that will likely stick with you long after the credits roll. The scariest thing about 1917 is how real the war feels.
The narrative occasionally feels like it’s just moving from one set piece to the next, but when set pieces are strung together like this it feels like a trivial concern. 1917 is a wonder to behold. A gripping plot is elevated by an ambitious and challenging approach. If you manage to see it on the biggest screen you can, you will be left shaking in your seat once it’s all over. And if you ever needed reminding why Roger Deakins is king of the camera, this is as good a lesson as you’ll ever find.
1917 is out in cinemas now.