Film review: ‘1917’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Sam Mendes’ intense, gruelling World War One drama 1917 is, despite a few contrived moments, one of the most impressively confronting movies of the year. The film draws on classic war dramas such as Saving Private Ryan and Gallipoli as well as the ancient Greek legend of Pheidippides who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens during Greece’s war with Persia and even Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity in its story of a desperate quest to save fellow soldiers. Thankfully, despite these influences, the film rarely feels derivative.

Here, two Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) stationed in the trenches of northern France in 1917, are given the unenviable task of journeying across nine miles of ‘no man’s land’ to deliver a message for a British battalion to prevent them from making a suicidal push into German territory. Not surprisingly, this is a phenomenally dangerous journey and the two soldiers take a hideous battering, particular Schofield who’s shot, blown up, nearly drowned and forced to swim through a river of bloated corpses.

Mendes and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins have created a remarkable looking film with indelible panoramic images of battle-scarred wastelands, tense point-of-view shots of Blake and Schofield prowling sinister, rat-infested bunkers and hellish scenes of soldiers scurrying through the skeletal remains of bombed-out buildings. By constructing the film to look like one continuous tracking shot (even though a few cuts are obvious) Mendes mostly succeeds in immersing the audience in this nightmare landscape and within these two soldiers’ immediate experience. In conjunction with a powerful musical score and soundscape, the effect is bracing, unnerving and exhausting…but in a good way.

The film does, however, have its flaws. While 1917 is, for the most part, a punishingly believable film, the constant stream of mishaps the two messengers experience occasionally threatens credulity and at times feels a little gimmicky.

Also, because the two soldiers’ odyssey begins in the first frame, we don’t have a chance to acquaint ourselves with them before their ordeal begins. Consequently, the emotional impact of their experiences is muted. In addition, a few cameos by big name actors such as Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch are a little jarring. Had these actors been given bigger roles we would have become acclimatised to them being in the film.

Thankfully, these quibbles only slightly diminish the impact of a remarkable film.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: War drama.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Sam Mendes.

Release date: 9th Jan 2019.

Running time: 119 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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