1917 review: Heart-wrenching and jaw-dropping
James R | On 06, May 2020
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Watch 1917 online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TaklTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
The first thing anyone will tell you about 1917 is that it’s filmed so it all looks like it’s two long, unbroken takes. The thing they should tell you is this: it will make you cry. Because while Sam Mendes’ World War I thriller is a technical marvel, this eye-popping, on-rails thrill ride is also a vividly moving reminder of the horrors of war.
The film follows two soldiers, Lance Cpl. Schofield (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Gearge MacKay), who are given a seemingly impossible mission: take a letter across enemy lines to reach a troop before they fall into a German trip. If they prevent the ambush, Blake and Schofield will not only save more than 1,000 lives, they’ll also save the life of Blake’s brother.
It’s a fool’s errand as much as a hero’s quest, and 1917 treads the line between the two with remarkably precise agility, teetering from hope to doom with every turn of the camera. They take us from the trenches through underground tunnels, from desolate countryside to dead horses. It’s an apocalyptic vision that starts at horrifying and escalates steadily from there, treating us to an inevitable descent through the rings of muddy, grimy hell. Encounters with rats are as gasp-inducing as dogfights heard in the background, the single sound of a gun firing as unsettling as the sight of a gunned down plane.
It simply doesn’t let up, except for one heart-stopping set piece that pits Blake into a man-on-man confrontation, before whisking us away into an almost unreal night-time sequence that, lit by flames and flares, feels like we’ve crossed over to the other side. Cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins does some of his best work here – and that’s saying something – capturing the haunting beauty of a stillness that’s all too fleeting.
For all of the incredible production design, choreography and jaw-dropping scale, though, 1917 succeeds in the way it brings us impossibly close to one man’s individual experience of war. George MacKay is magnetic in the lead role as Blake, bringing a naivety and resilience to his worn-down boy, whose dreams are more personal than patriotic. He communicates all of this through his eyes alone, which shine out through the muck and dried blood.
“Hope is dangerous,” says Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) in one scene, and that cruel lesson emerges as the central truth of this gruelling two-hour ordeal. Thomas Newman’s score echoes that soaring journey from awe to hollow desperation, which is also summed up by a chilling moment where a young soldier sings The Wayfaring Stranger.
It’s not a new truth, by any means, but rarely has that truth been captured with such immediacy. This visceral piece of cinema isn’t just an impressive achievement; it uses all of its technical wizardry in service of its heart-wrenching message – that, for all those serving in the trenches just like us in the audience, the horror that is war never seems to end.
1917 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.