Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Same Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: George McKay & Dean-Charles Chapman with Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth & Benedict Cumberbatch
Produced by: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall & Brian Oliver
Reel Talk - 1917 (2019)
Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, 1917 is a survival story masquerading as a wartime epic. It’s a technical masterclass that, thanks to some authentic story elements and strong performances, has enough heart not to feel too mechanical.
After the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line, two British soldiers, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporals William Schofield (George McKay), are dispatched to the front lines with an urgent message to call off a doomed offensive. For Blake, the sense of urgency is personal as, come dawn, his older brother could be part of the ill-fated attack.
“[…] a touching performance from a nicely maturing Dean Charles-Chapman […] and an in-charge George McKay.“
Director Sam Mendes of American Beauty, Skyfall and Spectre fame, adapted the wartime stories of his paternal grandfather to make this high-stakes, big-budget Hollywood motion picture and his direction is clearest in its technical and scientific achievements.
Leading legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins to his rightly-won second Oscar is perhaps the greatest feat here for Mendes—fun fact; Deakins has been nominated fifteen times but has only won on his fourteenth and fifteenth nominations for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917 respectively. Shot and edited to appear as a single take and filmed largely outside in natural light, the seamless continuity of this film is predominantly what gives it its sense of urgency and is just the right cinematographic fit to carry its theme of “time as the enemy”. The last time that we saw a highly-billed film tackle the single-shot gimmick was in Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman where it was about as useful and effective as a prop gun in a bank robbery—that is to say, it only worked if you fell for it. Suffice to say, it was nice to see someone use the single-shot edit to actual effect. Impressive as this trick was—and it really was considering the challenges that Deakins and Mendes faced—it is still just a beautiful film to look at. Some of the shots are so dazzling, so breathtaking and so tense that they might be called orgasmic. There are stills from this film that will be used in filmmaking textbooks and highlight reels for decades to come.
“There are stills from this film that will be used in filmmaking textbooks and highlight reels for decades to come.“
Adding to the tense atmosphere and impending peril constructed by Mendes’ screenplay and Deakins’ cinematography is the at-times-grand, at-times-subtle score by frequent Mendes-collaborator, Thomas Newman. The action on the screen swells and abates with this score—particularly in one perfectly crafted “window scene” that you’ll recognize the minute you see it.
With so much technical experience and prowess unleashed onto this project, it had the potential to feel like the product of a soulless machine, churned out as a prototype for future productions. Instead, Mendes’ close connection to this story places small elements of heart into it that give it the potential to be so much more. That potential is realized by a touching performance from a nicely maturing Dean Charles-Chapman who wider audiences would last have seen throwing himself out of a window in Game of Thrones and an in-charge George McKay.
Their ability to make us feel more than just amazed at the mastery shining through from behind the scenes is not an accomplishment to be overlooked—particularly given that they must have been terribly focused on their painfully specific camera blocking while trying to jerk forth some tears. In another year that didn’t include some of the best screen acting of the century thus far by Joaquin Phoenix and Adam Driver or impressive turns from legacy actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce, there might well have been a nomination for George McKay. Sure, 1917 lost out to Parasite at the 92nd Academy Awards but in twenty years, we’ll still be talking about this film’s accomplishments. Ironically, time will not be 1917’s enemy.