Set on the battlefields of the First World War, two young soldiers are given the dangerous mission of delivering a message to the second Devonshire regiment in order to save countless British lives. “Pick a man, bring your kit.”
Dunkirk, for all its precise sound edits and dazzling practical effects, suffered from a lack of pathos, and while 1917 may not boast as epic a proportion of action, it does yield a greater emotional resonance. Director Sam Mendes, along with fellow writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, take us on a journey following two soldiers, lance corporals Blake and Schofield, both wonderfully played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, respectively. There is also an array of familiar English faces who compliment the film with their cameos, including the likes of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch. The story of 1917 not only paints the hardships of the men who fought, those stripped away from family in the name of their country, and the devastation of life that comes with war, but also of the humanity of those men who fought – that one may watch an enemy plane crash, and despite their differences, still help carry the pilot out. There is a sense of weary exhaustion among the men, three years into the war, that lingers throughout the film; I found the statement by Colonel Mackenzie (Cumberbatch) most telling, “There is only one way this war ends. Last man standing.” Mendes not only reminds us of the extent to which WW1 cost Britain and Europe as a whole, but how it would change the world forever. While this piece of history is often overshadowed by its 1940s counterpart, those pesky Americans were much more involved in that war, Mendes makes a serious case for WW1 to be further explored in film.
1917 sets the stakes early on, establishing an important sense of urgency that is only emphasized by the pounding of Thomas Newman’s score. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins place the viewer square in the middle of war, taking us deep into the trenches, across no man’s land, under the medical tents, and all in excruciating detail; the makeup and costume design are excellent. The ambitious choice of making the film feel as if it is all one shot pays off, as it brings us closer to the characters by confining us within their own immediate perception; I was reminded of the Dunkirk beach sequence in Atonement, but instead of lasting 5-minutes, the one-take style is successfully executed across a two-hour runtime. Additionally, Deakins lends his masterful ability of manipulating light and shadow to produce a hauntingly surreal sequence in the ruins of the French town Écoust, echoing his work in Skyfall and Sicario. And while the film presents tragedy in the flames of the burning town, it quickly rebuttals that in the following sequence where renewal is symbolized by cherry blossom leaves and the lyrics of “Wayfaring Stranger”.
One can mock the film’s portrayal of German soldiers having as good of a shot as a stormtrooper, arguing their sudden spurts of gunfire are only included to create cheap thrills to entertain the audience. But thrills these were, sharply crafted I might add, and entertained I was. The film lures you in quickly and never lets up. 1917 is both beautiful and heroic, imitating the sentimental gravitas of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan; it is a testament of war cinema at its finest. 10/10