silence of a quaint French town – now occupied by German military forces – is
interrupted by the sound of invading soldiers making howling commands. The fall
of the night sky cannot help but amplify the echo.
An imposing fire
looms in the background; burning with a wild intensity that threatens to engulf
Unbeknownst to the
gun-toting German soldiers is the presence of British soldiers hiding amongst
the shadows and sneaking through the city. Any movement could risk these
lurking soldiers exposure and jeopardise their time-sensitive mission of
sharing intel that could prevent the deaths of 1,600 British soldiers.
Yet never too far
from the warzone can soldiers find moments of tranquillity; some brief peace
from the horrors of battle. The cries of war are replaced with the calming
sound of the wind brushing against lush fields of grass that spread as far as
the eye can see.
grace being a fleeting reminder of what is at risk during war: humanity,
innocence, diplomacy. The destructiveness of which is captured with gasp-worthy
trepidation in Sam Mendes’ war-epic 1917.
News of an ambush
springs into motion the movements of British soldiers Lance Corporal William
Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman).
Their mission, requiring them to venture into the heartland of war to disclose
enemy intel, is paved with unknown horrors – both physical and psychological –
that will have audiences watching 1917 between the gaps of their fingers.
Presented as a
non-stop series of horrifying obstacles endured by the two vigilant soldiers,
Mendes is hesitant to offer a moment of relief in 1917. Mendes confronting depiction of war demonstrates a technical
prowess equal to Coppola, Spielberg and Nolan. He is as observant as he is
meticulous. The use of long takes, requiring actors to perform for extended
periods without any edits, succeeds in drawing out tension throughout the films
two-hour duration. The effect adding credence to the soldier’s journey while
highlighting the haunting realisation that one misplaced step could compromise their
The Skyfall director maintains this
lingering sense of dread when working across open and enclosed spaces. The most
effective application of this being seen in Schofield and Blake’s
anxiety-inducing crossing of a mud-ridden battlefield; the navigation of which
riddled with traps and a graveyard of human and animal corpses.
Leave it to the director of Jarhead to evoke the lion-hearted spirits of soldiers, with MacKay and Chapman solemn in their depictions of young-men pushed into the crossfire of war. The sincerity brought out in their performances convincing the viewer to believe the two lads would be chugging down pints in a British pub – laughing away at life – had there been no conflict. Their impressive efforts standing out amongst a supporting cast of Britain’s finest actors: Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Mark Strong and Andrew Scott.
Only when Mendes
attempts to convey the emotional stakes of tragedy, the likes of which involve
embers moving through the wind like fiery snow, can the direction feel
heavy-handed. Relationships with characters seen off-screen feel underscored by
Mendes’ need to point out without any nuance – an effort that comes across as
deliberate and detracts from the emotional performances carried on the faces of
MacKay and Chapman.
1917 flourishes in the
face of tonal inconsistency, the shoehorning of character-centric storytelling
slowing a film that functions on haste, thanks to Mendes’ ability to craft
awe-inspiring spectacle. This is accomplished both audibly and visually. Thomas
Newman remarkably evokes sensations of pain, loss and bravery with his sweeping
score. The mood created is emphatic and hopeful, with Newman succeeding to sync
sound with performance.
Lifting his game in
equal measure to Newman’s sublime score is Roger Deakins grandiose
cinematography. What Deakins achieves in 1917
with his stunning exhibition of lighting, sure to follow a similar awards
trajectory as his work had on Blade
Runner 2049, cannot help but captivate with its majestic artistry.
Despite a lack of
dramatic heft, Universal Pictures launches into 2020 with a commanding war-epic
that stands a testament to the technical bravado of Mendes, Newman and Deakins.
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay,
Colin Firth, Dean-Charles Chapman
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