There’s something rather shallow and underwhelming undergirding the audacious if controlled techniques on display in Sam Mendes’ high-concept WWI film.
Dir. Sam Mendes
2019 | UK | Drama/War | 119 mins | 2.39:1 | English, French & German
PG13 (passed clean) for violence, some disturbing images, and language
Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Plot: Two young British soldiers during WWI are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap.
Awards: Won 3 Oscars – Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects. Nom. for 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing
Distributor: United International Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: In Theatres (The Projector)
This is Sam Mendes’ second war film after the underrated Gulf War drama, Jarhead (2005).
With legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins back in tow, the American Beauty director has now set his sights on the trenches of WWI with 1917, a high-concept thriller (if you could call it that) centering on two soldiers who have to deliver a critical message across no man’s land in order to avert an unnecessary massacre by enemy forces.
They set off on their perilous journey, and Deakins’ camera follows them very much like protagonists of a virtual reality game. Perhaps the most obvious selling point of 1917 is that it was shot in one long continuous take, though more accurately, the film is made up of a few long takes digitally stitched together.
In other words, it is more Birdman (2014) than Russian Ark (2002). But that doesn’t take the shine off the sheer audacity of its controlled cinematography (surely a second Oscar for Deakins), where he also expertly plays with light and shadow, particularly a sequence set in a town on fire in the dead of night.
“They’re walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow mornings attack, if you fail, it will be a massacre.”
However, it is in the arena of storytelling that 1917 feels rather shallow; there is little attempt to go deep as it is neither a character study nor an examination of significant war themes, but perhaps that is never the film’s intention.
Still, stripped of its technique, and incredible production design, the film hits narrative milestones in too calculated a manner that ultimately feels perfunctory.
There are several scenes that work with a subtle emotional tenor, but the bulk of the film is simply walking, running, resting, and more walking. In this sense, one might actually find its long takes a double-edged sword, where storytelling is enslaved to technique.
For better or worse, Mendes and Deakins tried their best to find the essence of cinema in cinematography. The result is either spectacular for some audiences, or underwhelming for others.