Stefano Schiavone, Writer
Sam Mendes’ war epic 1917 has arrived in theatres amidst much excitement and critical acclaim. By the time I saw it on the 11th, the film had already won the Golden Globe for Best Picture and was quickly garnering Oscar buzz (it’s now been nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture). That begs the question: does this film — starring two young actors, about a conflict rarely explored in Hollywood, and shot in an audacious style– live up to this hype?
Absolutely, this film’s a masterpiece.
Written by Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns, 1917 follows two British soldiers — Blake and Schofield (played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) — who must traverse through war-torn France to save the former’s brother before his battalion of 1600 soldiers launch an ill-fated attack. While the character development is dispersed slowly throughout, I became attached to the two protagonists and their daunting tasks almost immediately. And with 1917’s two-hour runtime forcing these characters into difficult (but not unrealistic) scenarios, that’s an important goal to accomplish. Much of the excitement around 1917 is the camerawork on display (and I’ll get into that below), but without characters that the audience has a genuine emotional attachment to, that visual filmmaking is ultimately hollow. Mendes understands this, and the strength of these characters is an important reason why this movie succeeds. Two of my favourite moments in the film, both involving incredible feats of running, are as emotionally riveting as they are because of the care put into our protagonists and their struggles.
Through the experiences of Blake and Schofield, Mendes and Wilson-Cairns also delve into themes that, while not new to the genre, are explored with precision. Their patient story allows them to examine the human stakes of war — whether it be the soldiers fighting at the front of the conflict, the generals making the decisions between life or death, or the civilians trapped in the middle of the terrible fight. Throughout the film’s entirety, the senseless nature of war and the powerful will to survive are at the forefront of the characters’ struggles and are handled with great respect and maturity. Mendes was inspired by stories from his grandfather, who fought in World War I, and his care for this underrepresented historical conflict — and those who fought in it — is on full display.
What also helps to demonstrate the greatness of the script are the performances of Chapman and MacKay. Both display the desperation of Blake and Schofield, but also really showcase the differences between the two soldiers. Chapman does a great job of showing the caring, yet naive, nature of the young soldier in a very strong performance. However, MacKay steals the show. Schofield is more experienced and battle-hardened than Blake, but despite that closed-off exterior MacKay brings a powerful and emotional sense of humanity to the role. It’s not an easy performance to pull off, but MacKay does a fantastic job. My respect to both actors for performing this well on a film shoot where mistakes can be critical errors (though, when they do sometimes happen, actually elevate 1917).
Quickly, I have to mention Thomas Newman’s great soundtrack to the film. 1917’s score constantly builds until the climactic moment of the movie, and Newman mixes strong emotions with powerful heroism to terrific effect, never taking over the film but almost always playing a crucial role. “Engländer” and “Sixteen Hundred Men” particularly stood out to me, both during the film and on the soundtrack.
Now, to the spectacular camerawork throughout 1917; it’s a big reason for the film’s hype, and for good reason. With one exception, where the screen cuts to black (for quite a while, to good effect), Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins shoot the war epic to appear as one continuous shot. It’s a style gaining traction in Hollywood but hasn’t been used like in 1917, given the film’s location, practical effects and complex use of extras. This approach immediately grounds the viewer into the journey of the characters and made me feel as though I was a third member of this mission. And while there were moments when I was in awe at the length and complexity of a shot, it never distracted me from the events taking place. Mendes smartly utilized this technique in service of the story, rather than simply doing it “because it’s cool.”
And, man, does this movie look beautiful. Much of it was shot in natural lighting on-location in order to accomplish the one-shot look, and Deakins is at the top of his game in 1917. Here, he employs a wide colour variety, ranging from deep greens and blues to vibrant reds, that contrasts greatly with the desaturated look of the mangled trenches and battlefields. One sequence, occurring in a village at night, completely stunned me with its lighting and visuals (especially amazing considering its part of an action scene). War movies do not often look as striking as 1917, but this film delivers on combining the horrors of the war (it definitely earns its R/14A rating) with some breathtaking imagery. If I had to place bets on the Best Cinematography for this year’s Oscars, Deakins would be my guess.
1917 is nothing short of a stunning achievement in filmmaking. Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns crafted a script filled with maturity and emotional depth that, when combined with a terrific visual experience by Mendes and Roger Deakins, create one of the best films of 2019. Add on the terrific performances by Dean-Charles Chapman and George Mackay and a resonating score by Thomas Newman, and 1917 is deserving of all the hype.