1917 (****1/2) is never really gone

1917 – 2019

Director Sam Mendes
Screenplay Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

The effects of World War I continue to reverberate today, over 100 years after the fact. The ways are subtle to us now, but ever present. Even so, the horrors that the young men had to face in trench warfare has almost become one of those things heard about and not believed. For those people, the work of Sam Mendes could be overwhelming. Based on stories told by his grandfather, Mendes decided to make events that take place within the space of 1/2 day into cinematic one shot masterpiece. His work, with cinematographer Roger Deakins, brings an astounding presence and realism in a way that no amount of exposition ever could.

The story is a simple one. Two U.K. soldiers have to make their way through the recently abandoned German lines to deliver a message to another regiment leader who is about to lead his troops into a trap. One soldier, Lance Corporal (LC) Tom Blake (Chapman) has a brother in the regiment, and is thusly very motivated to get there in time. His partner, LC William Schofield (the brilliant MacKay) is not as thrilled, but he is dutiful.

The plan is revealed at the start, it doesn’t look like they have all that far to go on the map. The terrain of France in the middle of the war, though, inches feel like feet and feet feel like miles. The two start by climbing out of their trench and immediately we’re greeted with mud, barbed wire and rats climbing in and around dead bodies. That we don’t see complete human corpses is somehow more unsettling. We know the mud has to be filled with disease and it causes physical pain when one of the two suffers what would normally seem a minor injury to his hand. The viewer is almost trance like doomed to follow the hand through the tight quarters of the camera lens, for better or worse.

The work of Deakins and Medes is incredibly effective. We see the camera move over seemingly impossible locations, while the characters are unaffected by its presence. The attention to detail here is remarkable, given the movement through all of the uneven and dense terrain littered with the most breathtaking vision of atrocity.

The story works well when it concentrates on the messengers. Chapman and MacKay seem perfectly suited foot soldiers. The two possess no particular amount of brilliance, but they have a decency and moxie that one could expect from brothers in arms. The second act gives a literal departure with more desperate stakes. It is at this point, MacKay takes the rest of the film in his own, shaky hands. His performance may be the best thing about 1917.

We experience the story in looking at Schofield’s increasingly desperate eyes. The decisions he makes are a perfect match. The viewer is caught between second guessing decisions and the realization that the mission is surrounded by an enemy that is equal parts frantic and vicious. The journey feels like a nightmare waking up to to realize the horror isn’t over.

The intensity is maintained, so long as the characters are portrayed by actors with whom we are somewhat unfamiliar. Every once in a while, the feeling is interrupted with the presence of British acting royalty. I found myself wondering if Firth, Cumberbatch, Madden or Strong each got a trailer for their one day’s work, or did they just share the same one? Limiting the presence to perhaps one name actor could have made the film unbearably realistic, so perhaps they a worthwhile presence for most. Each played their roles adequately, but for what amounts to a cameo, it would have been a good time to find the next Mark Ryland or Christoph Waltz.

It’s a minor quibble, though. This film is exceptionally filmed and performed. It’s a necessary reminder that war is for keeps and not at all glamorous, even if the effort is a beautiful effort to save 1600 lives. The result is a feeling that should stay with the viewer long after they leave the theater.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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