1917: the film of the year? Not by a long shot

Made to appear as though it was shot in just one take – the question is not how the makers of 1917 achieved this coup, but why.

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National Service is a distant memory but young actors can still expect to undergo tours of duty on their way up the career ladder. Though only 27, George MacKay, the star of the new First World War drama 1917, has already seen active service twice in that conflict (in Private Peaceful and Birdsong). He also turned up in German-occupied Belarus (Defiance) and a military hospital (The Best of Men), before switching sides to play a Nazi officer (Where Hands Touch). He has a hunted, harrowed boyishness to him; with his sunken eye sockets and xylophone frame, he could pass for a cartoon skeleton. That makes him ideal for embodying the horror of war, which is just as well since he is on screen throughout 1917. He is the movie’s strongest asset in the face of emotional remoteness and a distinct familiarity best described as a case of “been there, Dunkirk”.

MacKay plays Lance Corporal Schofield, who is dozing in a field in northern France when he has the bad luck to be picked by another soldier, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), to accompany him across enemy territory. Their job is to prevent Allied regiments from launching an imminent attack. The Germans have vanished behind the Hindenburg Line but what appears to be a surrender is merely a retreat, and it is now the responsibility of these soldiers to stop their comrades from going over the top at first light.

Roger Deakins’s camera glides through the trenches in loving homage to Paths of Glory, following the couriers as they encounter seemingly every major British or Irish actor who had the misfortune not to be cast in Dunkirk: Daniel Mays as a gor-blimey sergeant; Colin Firth as an unsentimental general; Andrew Scott as a dazed lieutenant (“Which day is it?”) who is not too distracted to consider practicalities. Handing out flare guns to the young messengers, he wonders if they could be so kind as to throw them back once the Germans start shooting. No point leaving perfectly good hardware on the battlefield.

The director Sam Mendes, fresh from two Bond films, has learned from A Bridge Too Far and The Thin Red Line the value of sprinkling recognisable actors among the khaki greens of a war movie. Further down the line the special guest stars include Mark Strong as a captain whose philosophy – “It doesn’t do to dwell on it” – suggests that he may have had a hand in the brisk screenplay, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the colonel who must be persuaded to subdue his own bloodlust.

1917 is set over the course of 6 April (the day on which the US joined the First World War, though that event goes unmentioned on screen) and staged, like Birdman and Rope before it, to give the appearance of having been shot in an almost continuous take. There are several transparent edits but for the most part Mendes and Deakins keep the film ticking along in real time. The question is not how they achieved this coup but why. Any gains it brings in immediacy are made at a tremendous loss to immersion and the suspension of disbelief. Audiences who should be absorbed by the physical challenges inherent in the soldiers’ mission are likely to be thinking instead of the technical ones faced by the film-makers.

That detachment contaminates everything from grand spectacle (how on earth did they stage that plane crash?) to trivial detail. It is to be expected that vermin will be running amok over corpses trodden flat into the mud, but what we get instead is a handful of rodents so well-trained that you can feel the rat-wranglers loitering just out of shot. And when the colour drains from the face of a dying soldier, it’s tempting to wonder whether a make-up artist applied a quick dusting while the camera was pointed the other way or if the cadaverous pallor was introduced digitally in post-production.

Allowing more cuts would have removed those invidious thoughts without sacrificing any momentum that the illusion of continuity provides. Mendes seems to believe that the unbroken shot contributes more energy to the movie than it actually does. If anything, it slows things down, allowing us to see at all times where the characters are heading, so that we become acutely aware of how much dialogue will be needed to fill the scene in the interim. It’s left to Thomas Newman’s unsubtle score to do the emotional donkeywork traditionally shouldered by editing and close-ups.

The film recently picked up best picture and best director at this year’s Golden Globes, but while it is touching that Mendes has incorporated his late grandfather’s wartime stories into the script (co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns) it does no one a kindness to pretend that they have been shaped into great cinema. Viewers concerned that they might be in for a gruelling first-person war story like Come and See or Son of Saul, two masterpieces that Mendes has cited as influences, can rest easy. Mac-Kay’s ghostly face is stricken with a vivid horror that never permeates the rest of the film. We come away admiring not the bravery of soldiers but the stamina of actors. 

1917 (15)
dir: Sam Mendes

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 10 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran