Sam Mendes follows his two back-to-back James Bond movies, Skyfall and Spectre, with the finest film of his already distinguished career. Set during WWI, 1917 is a breathtaking and awe-inspiring experience. Already the winner of two Golden Globes, including Best Picture in the Drama category, with nine BAFTA nominations also announced, it now has a strong chance at the forthcoming Oscars.
Designed as one continuous tracking shot, à la Birdman, the film plunges the viewer into a hellish landscape, as two Lance Corporals are entrusted to deliver a crucial message. Leaving the trenches and venturing into No Man’s Land and beyond, their mission is to prevent a battalion of troops from falling into an ambush as they prepare for the Big Push. The naive Blake (Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) is more enthusiastic than the seen-it-all Schofield (George MacKay), who has already fought at the Somme.
Scripting with Penny Dreadful writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Mendes makes the smart move of setting the story during the period when the Germans retreated to the so-called Hindenburg Line during February and March of the titular year. A tactical move, it meant that occupied territories were suddenly, eerily, vacated, allowing for Blake and Schofield to leave the trenches unimpeded and weave through production designer Dennis Gassner’s evocatively created Western Front.
Scored with nerve-jangling tension by Thomas Newman, Mendes conceives of 1917 as a real-time thriller. Never cutting away from the protagonists, it’s a remarkable technical achievement (although the film wasn’t shot in one two-hour take as, say, Victoria managed, but rather in segments cleverly sewn together to give the illusion of one unbroken shot). Cinematographer Roger Deakins surpasses even his illustrious body of work here.
Performance-wise, MacKay delivers a titanic turn of emotional and physical endurance, though he’s surrounded by fine support from the likes of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden, who all play characters that the boys meet along the way. Somehow, through all the pyrotechnics, Mendes never lets us forget the devastating emotional impact of the Great War. Dedicated to his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, who served in WW1, this is a worthy tribute to those that gave their lives.
1917 opens on 10 January. For more details, visit here.
1. Still from 1917.