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Film Review: 1917 (2020)

1917 (2020) is a one-shot war drama based on a true story, set during World War I. Directed by Sam Mendes, this film is lead by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, with a supporting cast of Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Two comrades, Lance Cpl. Blake (Chapman) and Lance Cpl. Schofield (MacKay), are tasked with crossing No Man’s Land to send a message to call off an attack against Germany, potentially saving 1,600 British soldiers.

Previous films such as Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) have used the one-shot editing style to good use, so it was interesting to see how Sam Mendes would adopt the technique for a war film. Ultimately, it does take a little bit of time to get used to the style but it is incredibly effective. The way the story is filmed keeps you with the leading men at all times and never diverts from their story, making you feel like you are on this journey with them. There is one clear moment that the film cuts, giving the audience a dramatic impact at that moment and giving a bit of breathing space in such a tense moment. It is clear when the cuts do happen, even when it is meant to be a one-take style, but they are edited so tightly together that it still holds that impact and the long sequences are incredibly well filmed.
It helps to have a cinematographer like Roger Deakins tied to a project like this, because this film can be made or broken by how the cinematography is handled. The importance of cinematography doesn’t just mean the ability to create these epic long takes, it is how the film is framed and what should appear on camera. For a film with a lot of practical effects, the placement of the camera to fully realise these effects is vital and timing is key for every moment on screen. This film is visually stunning, with aspects such as lighting and composition taken into consideration and I will be shocked if Deakins loses out on the Oscar this year.
It is impressive when any performance is well done, but even more so when two relatively unknown actors can not only hold their own against the likes of Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, but also carry an entire film of this scale on their shoulders. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay both have very heavy moments in their roles and have so much they have to achieve, and they don’t even get the luxury of short takes or little dialogue or action. They are thrown straight into the deep end here, having to perform stunts, be physically fit and recite huge sections of dialogue in just one take. It is easy to walk away from a film like this marvelling at the technological achievements, but it is also impressive when the acting is on par with that.
Sam Mendes creates a script that is filled with a lot of heart, and it is a subject matter that he clearly cares a lot about. This film is based on a story told by his grandfather, who was a soldier who had to trek through No Man’s Land himself to get a message to another group of soldiers. This personal connection to the source showed a lot of care for the script, which highlighted the humanity of the situation and focused on that rather than the heroism of the situation. Mendes makes it clear that the themes of the film are based on survival instinct, family ties and acting human, not trying to be a hero or taking part in the war to earn a medal. It is important to see moments like this grounded and presented as a dark reality, not something that should be glamourised and I appreciate that.
It takes a lot of work to recreate a setting such as the trenches and to transport the audience back to the World War, and yet all of the technical aspects helped place the audience in the scene as if it was footage from that era. The costumes and makeup help show the extent of the tragedy of the War, with many soldiers having wounds and injuries that look scarily real. The production design not only has to replicate the real trenches of World War I, which they do very well, but the production design also has to work with the script and the long shots used, so they have to be planned to allow for the film to flow at a steady pace.
1917 has one of the best scores of the year as Thomas Newman continues to prove how versatile he is as a composer. It is actually the quieter moments though that work best here, with one moment of a soldier singing “Wayfairing Stranger” potentially being the best sequence in the entire film. The music and sound creates so much emotion out of the situation, but it is also used to create tension and suspense. The sound editing and mixing are used incredibly effectively, with the loud gunshots making the audience worry for the lead protagonists and hope that they can survive this long journey that they go on.
This is a film that is not only strong in terms of its technicality, but also of its heart. The script is incredibly smart, the casting of both Dean and George is spot on, there are plenty of twists and turns throughout the film and the one-shot style of editing is seamless and done with huge impact, not just feeling like a gimmick or a show-off of the technology. Sam Mendes put his heart and soul to bring the story of his grandfather to life here and it is a film he should certainly be proud of.

Have you had a chance to see 1917 yet? Is it a film that you love as much as I do? Let me know in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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