1917 opens and closes on the calm of a peaceful field, but what transpires in the nearly two hours in between is anything but tranquil. While the carnage and chaos of war have been captured for the screen numerous times before, director Sam Mendes and friends — including, most notably, cinematographer Roger Deakins — deliver something uniquely immersive and powerful here with a journey through enemy territory captured in what amounts to a single take. (More on that later.) It’s an at times mesmerizing technical feat that pushes and pulls viewers along for every uncertain step, and it makes for one hell of an intense cinematic experience.
It’s April, 1917, and the end of World War I is still over a year and a half away. Two British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), are stirred from their brief sleep and assigned a mission of utmost importance. They’re to trek miles through battle-scarred and booby-trapped territory only recently abandoned by the Germans to reach a battalion mere hours away from charging into a deadly trap. The lives of 1600 men are on the line, and one of them is Blake’s older brother. The pair set off on their impossible journey with the weight of more than just backpacks and gear on their shoulders, but in war, even the cost of saving lives sometimes comes with more casualties.
The story, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns (staff writer on Penny Dreadful, and she also co-wrote next year’s highly anticipated Edgar Wright film Last Night in Soho) and Mendes, couldn’t be simpler, and that’s an element that works well to the film’s advantage. 1917 is a tale on a timer with characters on a deadline needing to move from point A to point B, but while that conceit is already enough to build intensity it’s the film’s format that magnifies that tension to fist-clenching degrees. Mendes and Deakins tell their story visually through a single shot — there are roughly six or so cuts, but all aside from one are hidden in the camera movements — which affords viewers the opportunity to essentially walk, run, and crawl in these soldiers boots. We’re with them from beginning to end, and while immediate danger is staggered even the “downtime” is stressful as the shadow of dread hangs over every step. Viewers are on this mission with the two men, and it is harrowing. It’s also endlessly impressive on the technical front as Deakins’ camera glides forward and backward through narrow, crowded trenches, out second floor windows, and across water. If ever there was a movie guaranteed to leave you hungry for behind the scenes footage to see just how certain shots were achieved, it’s this one.
Mud, blood, and bloated corpses catch their footfalls, and it sets an ominous tone complimented more musically by Thomas Newman‘s fantastically shifting score. Beautiful pieces evoke loss and regret while others ramp up the audio energy to accompany the growing madness on the screen. One sequence in particular sees the perfect pairing between score and cinematography as fights and a foot chase break out amid the crumbling remains of a bombed out town illuminated only by fire and flares arcing through the sky above. It’s a beautiful nightmare brought vividly to life.
Performances are spot on and never flashy with Chapman and MacKay capturing the drain of war on both the body and mind, but their resilience is every bit as believable. Far more recognizable faces are sprinkled throughout including Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden, but it’s the two young stars who captivate and shine brightest. Claire Duburq makes her debut as the film’s only female character, and while her appearance offers only a brief respite from the bombast of war it’s a sequence that confirms the film’s focus on humanity. The immediate danger and reason for the fight might be standing in front of them, but the bigger picture can’t be escaped.
1917 is a war film punctuated with action, suspense, and drama, but the through line, the one we’re walking with these two young men, is an emotional one. They know that thousands of lives are in their hands, and while Blake’s brother is among them the bulk are complete strangers. This is no gung-ho military mission — it’s one built on compassion, honor, and urgency — but while emotion is a constant the film wisely saves a particular release for the very end where it can offer characters and viewers alike the time to breathe and reflect. While we get to walk away, though, we know that these brave men will be walking on.