Sam Mendes reinvents World War I movie with sophisticated technical prowess and massive scale of production in 1917. It’s a cinematic triumph presented with an illusion of seamless single take for almost two hours, which works more than pleasing the eyes. The technique undoubtedly is the only possible one to narrate Mendes’ captivating story and guide the audiences to the harrowing looks of war in real-time.
The story revolves on a crucial day back on 6 April 1917, three years into the first great war. Two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay; Captain Fantastic, Marrowbone) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman; Tommen Baratheon from Game of Thrones, recently in The King), were in charge to deliver a life-and-death message that will affect the lives of at least 1600 British soldiers, including Blake’s brother. Unknowingly walking into the dire mission, the two soldiers must travel light and walk across the enemy’s line, crossing no man’s land before the day changes; otherwise, they must prepare for the worst.
Roger Deakins’ camera follows—and sometimes precedes—Schofield and Blake as they roam from the crowded British trenches to the enemy’s trenches. The camera movement occasionally takes peculiar routes, piercing through barbwires or circling around the two privates, triggering fears of lurking dangers that might ambush them unprecedently. The cinematography works as a narrative tool that tells the story from the heart. It’s adeptly speeding up, deliberately taking a pause to settle up the rhythm, giving the sense of urgency, and putting audiences to an immersive experience in the midst of a true horror called war.
While the awe-inspiring cinematography blends with Thomas Newman’s scoring to cue audiences for pivotal moments, Mendes’ direction unravels bursts of iconic moments. Dunkirk‘s Oscar-winning editor, Lee Smith, helps to assemble Deakins’ dynamic camera-works with some exquisite shots (iconic silhouettes that remind us immediately to Skyfall) in one, seamless take which might sometimes demand your attention, but, most of the time, glue the story together with atmospheric sense. In completing the technical prowess, MacKay and Chapman’s performance is sympathetic as they share stories along the way, save each other in any peril, or simply get amazed at how naive they have been all along. As they went deeper into the enemy’s terrain, it’s hard to resist the chilling atmosphere which keeps you at the edge of your seat.
The visual showmanship is splendid and the details are ethereal. Nonetheless, it’s the heart of the story which makes the whole story (inspired by the story of the director’s grandfather, novelist Alfred Mendes who fought the first world war) moving and captivating. As the two soldiers traipse through the battlefield, they witness the real horror with their very eyes—blood, limbs, and unattended dead bodies scavenged by forager animals. From their looks, we observe how fed up they are with the war even when the story gives no backstories or epilogues because, for them, there’s only the here, the now, and probably the tomorrow that might never come.
1917 is a cinematic experience. It demands to be experienced in the finest cinema in town, or at least in the biggest available screens. The technical achievements only elevate the story which might sound modest but shows us more. It’s like any war movie; only it decides to go big and refuse to go any lower.