1917 opens on a field of flowers, and you better inhale deeply because that’s as much of a breather as you’re gonna get until nearly the end of the film. You go in expecting a war film, and while war is certainly the frame the picture is mounted in, it’s far from the focus of the art. We follow, and I literally mean follow, two soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) as they wind their way through the British trenches of World War I after being given an order to deliver a life-saving message to another regiment across no-mans land. They need to move fast to stop a planned attack that will likely kill 1600 British soldiers, including Blake’s brother.
When Schofield and Blake hurl themselves over the trench wall, it would not be inaccurate to compare it to horses out of the starting gate with massive stakes. If you’re paying attention you will quickly notice a feeling of building tension akin to a bow being draw. The director, Sam Mendes, uses extremely long takes. In fact, the entire film is supposed to feel like one unbroken shot. The result of this is the feeling that you cannot escape the film, that you are with the soldiers as they speed through enemy territory, stepping over the nameless dead. Watching 1917 is a very intimate experience, an aspect that differentiates it from many other films about war. I call it an experience because “story” does not quite seem to fit. The soldiers are given a task and the film is an account of their attempt to fulfill that task. What happens between beginning and end is more like an obstacle course than a narrative. That is not to diminish it’s accomplishment, quite the opposite. It’s rare to see a film with such an uncomplicated plot that doesn’t manage to muddy it up by the end. It’s one and only question is “Will they get there in time?”
That is not to say, however, that this movie is anything like a thriller or action film. It’s more like a master class on inducing anxiety. The quiet moments are used just as effectively as the loud ones. During one moment in particular the music stops short and we are struck with an enormous silence and the realization of what that silence means.
While the film is propelled by the seamless drive of the camera, it has a distinct split. When we emerge on the other side we find ourselves in one of the most stunning set pieces I’ve ever seen on film. I never knew that lighting could be both heartbreakingly beautiful and horrifying. 1917 is a technical achievement at the very least. The sound design and mixing are also used beautifully to overwhelm our senses, swallow us in silence, or take us home.
MacKay and Chapman embody their characters, with Chapman’s upbeat and hopeful Blake balancing MacKay’s more subdued Schofield. The other appearances are entirely cameos, and while they all get the job done nicely, Richard Madden was a standout as the older Blake brother.
If I have one small criticism of the film it’s that the unbroken shot device gets slightly clunky toward the end. You can only pan the camera behind so many rocks or trees before it becomes a distraction. That’s not to say it’s use is unnecessary as it’s extremely effective in the first half of the movie. But once I’m noticing the movement of the camera more than what’s on screen, some of the effectiveness has worn off. Why does it matter if it seems like one continuous shot when I know it’s not?
By some miracle, at the end of the film we are once again in a field of flowers. The battle wrecked landscape is behind the camera, out of sight. We have come through the obstacle course and out the other side. But this is war, the machinations of which are beyond our characters’ command or determination. The only real question for these soldiers in these trenches is what is next and then next and then next before they’re finally home.