Much of the conversation surrounding 1917 is dominated by the story of the single take. While not completely unique, as evidenced by Hitchcock’s Rope, the recent best picture winner Birdman and foreign thrillers such as Victoria, the single shot is a concept that continues to entice viewers. It brings to mind words that studios love to put on their posters, adjectives like “immersive”, “realistic” and “authentic”. The idea is seemingly perfect for this movie. We follow two British soldiers in 1917 who must deliver a message to another battalion, calling of an attack on the Germans doomed to fail. Indeed, cinematographer Roger Deakins is a master of his craft and this review could simply praise his command of the single shot technique. Through his meticulous planning of not only the way the camera seemingly hovers above the characters, as well as lighting and framing, he creates an engrossing image worthy of the big screen. There are moments of true visual virtuosity, and this technical feat alongside other elements of craft such as score and sound create truly memorable moments of terror and beauty all at once.
Yet in truth, 1917 is more interestingly analysed when the single take is removed from the picture. It’s a talking point that is easy to latch on to but I would wager that the bigger gimmick is the premise of this film as a whole. The war movie itself is a gimmick in this day and age. There, I said it. In fact, it’s not unthinkable that the only reason the single take was used was to draw out some way of differentiating this movie from anything else from the last few years, whether it be Dunkirk, Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge. Director Sam Mendes has constructed a film that rings hollow, a technical marvel for sure, but one that adds nothing new to a crowded genre, and feels like something crafted purely for awards attention.
To give credit where credit is due, that strategy is working. The film is sweeping with all sorts of awards groups, from the Golden Globes to the Producer’s Guild. Maybe I’m just a jaded cynic who sees the worst in the film simply because I’ve seen it before, but in truth everything felt calculated and finely tuned. Case in point, the script does manage to balance action sequences with “character growth”, and seemingly Mendes and fellow screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns have responded to the criticisms of Dunkirk by adding more heart and sentimentality to its main characters. But often these feel shoehorned in to fill time, and stall the action while the characters walk and talk. The movie sort of feels like a tick box affair, with each decision calculated for awards victory.
That’s not necessarily a statement on its eventual quality however, especially in terms of its acting. George Mackay and Dean Charles-Chapman do a fine job as the two soldiers sent on this seemingly suicidal mission. Mackay is especially impressive as the tired Lance Corporal, and his face conveys both a world-weariness and youthful fear, a dichotomy found only in young men sent to their deaths before they’ve even lived. The film is also notable for its cameos aplenty, and with a screen-stealing scene from Fleabag’s resident priest Andrew Scott, audiences should have a blast playing spot the star.
In truth, 1917 is a deeply conflicting film. On the one hand, its filled with genuine performances and real excitement. The craft is magnificent, and the one-take, while not unique is expertly applied by Roger Deakins, who delivers his opus in a body of work unrivalled across the industry. But Mendes’ project adds little to a genre that’s existed since the dawn of movies. Everything from its central filming concept, to the on the nose sentimentality, to the real life backstory which inspired it screams awards bate. It’s a technical marvel, but like the superhero franchise, it feels like a product rather than a story. Scorsese should be shaking.
7.5/10- 1917 is a technical feat, but the lack of new additions to an already crowded genre means it isn’t wholly memorable