1917 (2019)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on January 2, 2020 @ tonymacklin.net.

1917 is a film you should see twice.

Once for the story and characters, and a second time to concentrate on the technical virtuosity.

At first, it may seem just a tours de force. But 1917 is an audacious accomplishment. 1917 has the illusion of being filmed in one continuous shot. It's not, but it is a fascinating phenomenon. And it's a challenge to see how it is achieved.

1917 is the story of two British lance corporals -- Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) -- who go on a near-suicidal mission. The general gives them a written order to give to the commander of the 2nd Battalion before it goes on a planned attack. It is a trap, and 1,600 men will die.

The general chose Blake, because he has a personal connection -- his brother is an officer with the 2nd Battalion. Blake picked his friend Schofield before he knew how dire the mission was.

The two British soldiers are the only ones who can prevent total annihilation. They set off on the grueling, terrifying mission.

1917 is influenced by the tales that writer/director Sam Mendes' grandfather told him about when he was a messenger in the First World War. The screenplay is co-written by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (female staff writer for the television series Penny Dreadful).

The plot and characters are fairly basic. What gives the film its wonderful eloquence are the people behind the imagery. 1917 is a film that should make you aware of their talent.

Foremost among them is cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith.

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography 12 times, Deakins finally won for Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Lee Smith won his Oscar for Best Editing for Dunkirk (2017). They both should contend for Oscars this year.

Deakins is a wizard of creative lighting and shadow. He and director Mendes carefully storyboarded where to put the cameras. [Shades of Hitchcock.]

He calls cinematographer the late Conrad Hall his "idol." "It was about the story," Deakins has said about Hall. And he is true to that.

It's ironic that Conrad Hall won an Oscar for cinematography in another film directed by Sam Mendes -- American Beauty (1999).

Deakins' camera goes up, down, back, and forth. It's the crucial major character.

The imagery in 1917 is striking. Hell has never seemed more gray and barren. And light strikes and explodes. 1917 has hellish beauty, nightmarish, vivid imagery. There is the glare of bright light or the flicker of an oil lamp in a dark room where a French woman hides at night with a baby that is not hers. Ruins are engulfed by fire. Village in flames.

And Deakins' camera follows a soldier plunging into a river, or frantically avoiding a sniper's bullets or racing through a crowded trench. This last shot is by camera on a motorcycle out of sight.

That scene is impressive but strains credibility. It's like trenches at rush hour, and the crowd parts as though Moses is coming through them.

But, overall, the cinematography is brilliant.

Lee Smith's editing is special, too. "An editor for one shot?" you ask.

One continuous shot is not made with one take. Some sequences had up to 40 takes, from which they chose the best. One take was 8 1/2 minutes. They were put together seamlessly by Smith into one continuous shot. There are several cuts but they disappear.

Also important to the structure and imagery is production designer Dennis Gassner, who shared an Oscar for Bugsy (1991). Veteran Thomas Newman did the music.

Sam Mendes directed smartly. Although he employed some star actors -- Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Richard Madden, who starred in the BBC television series Bodyguard, he relies on actors who are not well-known to give authenticity and humanity to his characters.

Both young soldiers -- played by George MacKay and Dean Charles Chapman -- are convincing. In the film's most poignant scene, the young French woman is played by Claire Duburcq. She is making her film debut.

The combination of young actors and veteran filmmakers concocts a potent mix.

But in 1917, vision is the ultimate.

© 2000-2020 Tony Macklin