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‘Real time’ horror of the trenches

‘Gritty and unwavering in its depiction of boots on the ground warfare, Sam Mendes ‘one-take’ edit 1917 is an outstanding technical achievement,’ says film reviewer Cameron Blackshaw

1917 (15)

Running time 1hr 39min

Rating: *****

The one-shot camera technique has become a much-used device in cinema in recent years, featuring heavily in 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman and in Sam Mendes’ previous film Spectre. Spectre’s opening was probably its best aspect, a stunning sequence that followed James Bond chasing a terrorist through Mexico City on the Day of the Dead. Although it is often seen as a gimmick and many times it comes off as one, Mendes uses it to elevate 1917 into a truly great war film.

The film follows two young British soldiers as they are sent on a mission to travel through no man’s land and stop a battalion’s advance on German lines. The mission is made all the more important by the fact that one of the soldiers has a brother in the fateful battalion.

The task sounds simple enough, but the horrors of the First World War trenches provide a multitude of obstacles for the two men to overcome.

George McKay and Dean-Charles Chapman star as the two protagonists. As a partnership, they display a real sense of camaraderie and companionship necessary for their roles. At times, Chapman doesn’t quite match McKay’s acting skills and can feel a little over the top in his delivery of dialogue, but the subtlety of facial expressions both young actors show throughout serve to carry us with them along their hellish journey.

The supporting cast is full of familiar British acting talent who all nail their small but satisfying appearances. Highlights include the comically-unnerving scene of Andrew Scott’s (Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock) Lieutenant Leslie warning the two men of what awaits them and the moving and emotional breakdown of Richard Madden’s (Bodyguard and Game of Thrones fame) Lieutenant Joseph Blake.

But the real star of 1917 comes in its multitude of astounding technical achievements. The one-shot technique doesn’t feel
distracting or gimmicky, but serves the story incredibly well. The camera movements are fluid and shockingly immersive; it’s as if the camera itself is the film’s third protagonist. If any of the Oscars are assured, its Roger Deakins for the cinematography award. He proves yet again that his technical mastery knows no bounds.

It isn’t just the cinematography that makes the film as great as it is. The lighting is truly stunning, the production design is realistic yet artful, the sound is hauntingly up-close and personal and the score is gripping and hair-raising. All the technical aspects are faultless and contribute to the palpable and inescapable tension that pervades throughout the entire film.

The best example of all these elements combining successfully is the night-time sequence within the ruined town of Écoust. The sight of the devastated buildings is both thrilling, horrifying and beautiful. Lit up by falling flares and accompanied by an uplifting and rousing score, the effect is nothing less than sublime.

Gritty and unwavering in its depiction of boots on the ground warfare, 1917 joins the likes of Dunkirk and Saving Private Ryan in modern cinematic world war brilliance. The performances sometimes falter and the dialogue can be a little wooden and even unneeded at times, but that doesn’t stop it from being probably the most technically proficient film I have ever seen. It tells a simple emotional story effectively and in a visually enthralling and fascinating way and for that, Mendes’ direction and the whole film’s crew must be commended.

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