Sunday 2 February 2020

1917 by Mendes & Wilson-Cairns

At first 1917 looks like it's going to be the finest movie about World War One since Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Indeed the smoothly tracking camera that follows our protagonists through the trench system is reminiscent of one of the most striking features of Kubrick's film.

But 1917 is a very different proposition. Whereas Paths of Glory was a political film, and indictment of the whole military system, 1917 is very much on the personal level, staying close to two ordinary soldiers, Blake and Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay).

And I do mean close, 1917 is designed to look like one continuous tracking shot depicting our heroes' harrowing adventures in real time as the two men race against the clock to save hundreds of their comrades who are walking into a trap.

1917 takes its cue from Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, immersing the audience in a nightmare reality and tightening the screws. Thomas Newman's impressive music has a similar impact to Hans Zimmer's in Dunkirk and Lee Smith who edited 1917 also edited Dunkirk.

And while 1917 is doing its continuous-tracking, real-time thing it is absolutely gripping and looks like it's shaping up to be a masterpiece.

But about halfway through the movie our hero is knocked unconscious and the screen goes black. When Schofield wakes up and the story resumes, the film has effectively come to a halt and needs to start again from scratch.

All the earlier momentum is squandered and the intense emotional engagement of the audience needs to be built up again. And it never really is...

It doesn't help that the incidents in the second half of the movie are bizarre, far fetched and unconvincing in comparison to the riveting first half.

1917 is a good film, but it could have been a great film. It the story could have been designed so that it was all set in real time, and all shot like a continuous take, I believe it would have been an unforgettable masterpiece.

Even as it stands, though, I found it to be more human and moving than Dunkirk, with more engaging and memorable characters – Andrew Scott (the Priest from Fleabag) is particularly brilliant in the role of Lieutenant Leslie. The script is by the director Sam Mendes in collaboration with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who worked on the TV show Penny Dreadful. It was inspired by the experiences of Mendes's grandfather.

(Image credits: a mere four posters available at the stalwart Imp Awards.)

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