Director: Sam Mendes
Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Andrew Scott
Sam Mendes’ latest film betrays a conspicuous fascination with the revelatory nature of time. It’s there from the concise date-stamped title onward (the title card goes into further specificity, citing events as taking place on April 6th). The well-publicised gimmickry of shooting his Great War film in a series of extended tracking shots intends to immerse us in the realities of combat; to replicate for the audience the sense of being there. It manages this, in fits and starts. But more often it serves to remind us of how unrelenting and unforgiving time can be; and how quickly it can spin us like tops from one state of being to another.
Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are at rest a little way from the trenches when they are called upon to perform a particularly daunting and important service. Under orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth) they are to advance beyond the front lines to intercept a battalion that is marching headlong toward an enemy ambush. This mission comes with added personal weight for Blake as his brother is among those edging closer to impending doom. Mendes has us follow them, turning Roger Deakins’ well-choreographed camera into an invisible onlooker.
Rather than attempt a Russian Ark or Victoria feat in which the entire film, end-to-end, is captured in a single take, Mendes opts for the ‘Birdman‘ approach; knitting together several long shots that are seamlessly merged with the aid of fast wipes or digital morphs. Acknowledging the inherent sense of trickery in this, he deliberately breaks halfway through for a 16 second cut to black – an act that delineates the film and also acts as a necessary narrative time jump. This bold cut is the sole piece of explicit punctuation in the film, which got me thinking about grammar.
A film’s edits are its punctuation. Cutting allows rhythm and cadence. Can be used to elaborate or disorientate. More fundamentally, it allows for such simple concepts as ‘meanwhile’, ‘then’ or ‘however’. You can even use it to defy time and suggest ‘previously’. Removing the grammar makes a piece of film flow forever onward; a never-ending sentence or, perhaps more aptly, an unblinking eye. Things require simplification. Directness becomes important.
Making a film – any film – in this way invites spotlight on the process itself. “How was this done?” “How was that avoided?” etc. etc. And one might argue that the technical bravura in fact takes away from the immersive quality of the piece. Impressive as the effort is, there’s always a sense of being outside of the work, or looking at it for how its made rather than what its asking us to feel or consider. 1917 is a technical wonder, but to what extent does its prowess become a hindrance?
That’s tricky to answer. Cumulatively, the film feels like a milestone of sorts for its achievements, but only so long as you bow in awe to the wonder of the long take. The technical side may have led to sacrifices elsewhere. MacKay is superb throughout, but Chapman wobbles here and there, making you wonder whether quality of performance has been compromised… The need for constant narrative propulsion also means that we get to know very little about these young men. Blake is given some context (his mother owns an orchard, so we know he’s from money), but we know next to nothing about Schofield. One might argue that’s the point. He’s one of so many young men thrown into a hell that obliterates class or standing.
Plot also takes a bit of a walloping once you concede that the order these men are given quickly becomes nonsensical following developments they encounter. It therefore feels like a MacGuffin to take us on a tour of war-torn France, and another more thorny influence steps in; that of video games.
The likes of Call of Duty and company have for years exploited war for the purposes of entertainment in a manner that seems queasily reprehensible. Mendes’ 1917 has been made beautifully – and in earnest – but its third-person shooter stylings (un?)intentionally bring these thoughts back into play. Much as he undoubtedly doesn’t want to glamorise war, there’s a sense of being aboard a theme park ride about the film that sits in the stomach like a stone. The grandness of the shooting style may not be intended to make war itself seem grandiose… but it does.
Still, 1917 is kind of marvellous, and isn’t nearly as interested in realism as it pretends to be. The opening of it’s second half sees Mendes, Deakins and prize-composer Thomas Newman ascend to levels of operatic drama that rival those witnessed in Apocalypse Now. Deakins’ efforts with light and shadow are wondrous as a literal hell-on-earth is created among the ruins. Elsewhere, the opening and closing moments feel like well-contemplated bookends, exhibiting a deftness akin to Malick.
Often what’s most powerful about this film – in spite of certain cheats or conveniences – is how incredible circumstances can throw us through the gamut of human experience. 1917 evidences love both brotherly and maternal, shows us grief, horror and the extremes of fright and bravery. And all the while time marches on, caring not for your deadlines or broken watches, nor for whether you’re even awake or breathing. Time will get us all. All we can ask is for a little reprieve.
With some reservations, that’s a hell of a thing for any movie to consider.