Review by Eoin O’Donnell
With 1917, Sam Mendes has created what might just be the most frighteningly real time capsule into war ever put to screen, and somehow still delivered a satisfying and moving narrative. The First World War has long been untapped potential for modern filmmaking, but now it seems that purpose has been well and truly fulfilled.
There’s no escaping that the main ‘draw’ of the film is its cinematography and the promise that the whole film is delivered in one unbroken shot, and the film is really as much Roger Deakins’ film as it is Mendes’. Fresh off his first Oscar for Blade Runner 2049, Deakins has taken on what must have been one of the biggest challenges a cinematographer could face and has delivered a gorgeous piece of work. Everything from lighting the huge exteriors to navigating the camera through barbed wire must have been incredibly difficult, and the end result speaks for itself. Of course it’s not entirely one take, there are cuts; some are subtle and some are deliberately obvious, but all of them work to create a narrative flow that somehow pulls off the balancing act of tension that the film delivers. There are times when the audience is physically holding its breath as the unbroken set pieces escalate, and Deakins and Mendes know exactly when to give us some air.
It is admittedly difficult at first to not be distracted by the one-take; the constant disbelief and curiosity of how on earth it was all pulled off can be immersion-breaking, pulling you out of the experience Deakins and Mendes so carefully pieced together. As the film gains momentum though, this quickly fades: everything from the performances to the set decoration to the sound design is built to keep you focused on the characters and their journey, and it truly does feel like a journey. No set or actor appears more than once, and each landscape is as harrowing as the last; Corpses fade into muddy trenches and human skulls become indistinguishable from rocks underfoot, the environments of battles gone-by telling as much of a story as the foreground. Rifle fire is deafening and distant biplanes sound like mechanical monsters, as the film’s audio carefully pits the soundscape of war against a silence that’s every bit as terrifying, while bringing it together with Thomas Newman’s booming score which runs for almost the entire film.
It is admittedly difficult at first to not be distracted by the one-take; the constant disbelief and curiosity of how on earth it was all pulled off can be immersion-breaking, pulling you out of the experience Deakins and Mendes so carefully pieced together.
Aside from the revolving door of cameos by familiar faces as assorted military officers, the film really only has time for its two main soldiers. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay truly do carry the film with a genuine fear and determination that is impossible not to buy into. There’s not a moment in the film where neither of them is on-screen, and with the takes seemingly lasting as long as thirty minutes, it puts incredible pressure on the actors. The result is almost theatrical at times. Their interactions are much less precise than most, feeling far more genuine and improvisational. This goes for the dialogue as well as the action; the camera kept rolling no matter what setbacks befell the actors, making an extra tripping on-set indistinguishable from a rehearsed stunt. War is clumsy and raw, and shooting the actors and set pieces in such a way is a large part of what makes the film so immersive.
The trend of ‘one-shot’ films that have cropped up in recent years have varied in their effective use, but for its genre and subject matter, 1917 is by far the most appropriate and impressive implementation of the technique we’ve seen as of yet. For Mendes and Deakins it was clearly far more than a gimmick, and it works only to elevate a potentially great film to a truly remarkable piece of cinema.
1917 opens in screens across Ireland on January 10.