Monday, 17 February 2020

1917 ★★★★☆

At its heart, 1917 is a film about the horrors of war. No more, no less, it’s a cold look at life during WWI, with a dose of action and the trappings of a thriller to keep the heart pumping throughout.

Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with travelling over no-man's land in an effort to stop 1600 of their fellow soldiers from walking into a German trap. They’re given little to no chance of success before setting off on their suicide mission, and they quickly form an easy little brother/big brother team. In real life, the former has more acting credits and is visibly the eldest of the two. The latter was last seen (by me, anyway) chucking himself off The Red Keep in Game of Thrones, but I didn’t actually realise he was formerly Tommy B until I double-checked the cast list to write this very review.

The main duo is backed up by a supporting cast that is a who’s who of primetime British talent, taking time off from earning a BBC paycheck to pop in with a posh accent for a couple of minutes. Take Benedict Cumberbatch, for example. He’s billed as one of the main characters, but it would be easy to miss his cameo if you were sending an overly long text message, or ordering a Dominos. The same goes for Rob Stark, (Richard Madden) Moriarty from Sherlock, (Andrew Scott) Merlin and Harry from Kingsman, (Mark Strong & Colin Firth) and Danny from Line of Duty (Daniel Mays). The list is almost endless, and they all could have been used slightly more effectively, or not at all.

Beautiful longshots underscore a visual spectacle, showing the reality of heading into a literal warzone where bodies are left to lie rotting in the dirt, while rats spread diseases and the night sky is lit up like fireworks on New Year's Eve. Sam Mendes certainly managed to capture the confusion of being shot at from somewhere, and I was drawn to the edge of my seat by multiple scenes that ramp up the pressure expertly. 

The film has two simple beats. Brief moments of respite to allow for character building and quick conversations, followed by tense, longer sections where the camera will pan and follow the actors for minutes at a time, as they navigate through enemy territory or attempt to locate something among the chaos. It looks like it was filmed in one massive take, and it’s a sight to behold. It’s a technique that isn’t used often, and it must have been difficult to ensure everything ticked along at the right moment. To that end, 1917 hardly misses a step, wrapping up neatly in just under two hours.

If there’s a message to take from 1917, it’s that nobody on the other side can be trusted. Shellshocked boys are sent to their deaths by men who’ll never step foot on a real battlefield, and it’s a shitty experience all round. Luckily, the audience gets to go home at the end. 

James Millin-Ashmore

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