Through the magic of carefully planned shots and masterful editing, “1917” was one of 2019’s best films. Following an awards’ season limited release in December, it’s now playing at a theater near you. This movie is one to watch on a big screen. Beyond the novelty of experiencing what appears to be one continuous feature-length shot, there’s a rich, dramatic narrative underlying it all.
Directed by Sam Mendes (see “Skyfall” and “American Beauty”), this World War I set picture has two young British soldiers assigned an impossible mission. The film’s protagonists, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), must deliver a vital message behind enemy lines. And if they fail, 1600 men will die. For Blake, it’s personal, because his brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (“Bodyguard’s” hunky Richard Madden), is in the direct line of fire.
Much of the focus of this one has been on Mendes’ collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”). The visual goal is to make the film appear to have been shot in one single take. Even though the result leads a viewer to believe that the camera was continuously running while the action progressed, there were cuts. Through skillful work, you can’t exactly see the edits.
Now that I’ve seen the film twice, I can attest that the supposed “one-take” gimmick is nothing of the sort. By keeping the shots long, transitions seamless, and the movement continuous, Mendes and Deakins put the viewer in the thick of the urgency of the mission. It enhances an already engaging viewing experience.
To this end, we see, for example, movement through a trench on a battlefield, following the soldiers within the channel and into darkened bunkers. When the two men venture onto the scarred war-torn landscape itself, the camera glides along next to them, both intimately capturing their advancement and, ultimately, pulling back to survey the desolate destructive power of the conflict.
It’s immersive, but not the kind of visual scope that makes the viewer a participant in the action. It’s the thoughtful reserve, or detachment allows the viewer to breathe and keeps the film from falling into the nauseating trappings that mar so many found footage movies.
It helps that Mendes, a British-born Oscar-winning director, marshals such a fine cast. The two leads are excellent. We see almost their every move over the film’s nearly 2-hour running time. But sprinkled throughout are some of the best and most recognizable English actors working today. Colin Firth appears early as a General. Andrew Scott (“Fleabag’s” sexy priest) has an amusing turn as a disagreeable Lieutenant. And Benedict Cumberbatch (Marvel’s Doctor Strange) shows up late in a critical scene. Performances across the board are top-notch and serve to liven an already thrilling narrative.
But while the action is undeniably thrilling, the best moments in “1917” are the small ones. In one sequence, Lance Corporal Schofield gets some insightful advice from a weary Captain played by Mark Strong. And in another scene, Schofield escapes into the basement of a bombed building and has an unusually tender encounter. These calmer moments play well against the louder, more familiar war-themed events.
Overshadowed by epic films about World War II, movies about the First World War have not been as frequent in recent years. Back in 2011, Steven Spielberg gave us the uneven “War Horse,” but we’ve seen few narrative films about this conflict in theaters for many years. The moving and exciting “1917” would make a great double feature with Peter Jackson’s 2019 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.”
Of note for the unique single-shot look, “1917” is also an emotionally arresting and intimate look at the horrors of the Great War.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com