Review: 1917 (2019)

Year: 2019
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Stars: George McKay, Dean Charles Chapman, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott 

By Nicole Ackman

Sam Mendes’ “1917” (2019) is more than just a technical marvel; it’s a captivating survival story of young men in wartime. While its one-take approach with all of its footage melded together to look as though the full two hour film was one continuous shot is great, this is not a film ruled by its gimmick. In fact, it’s easy to forget about the one-take editing by Lee Smith once you’re into the action of the movie until there’s a particularly impressive bit of camera movement. At its heart, “1917” tells a story about the destruction that war.

The film begins on April 6, 1917 as two British soldiers in France receive orders. Schofield (George McKay) and Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) are tasked with giving a message to the another regiment to warn them to call off their impending attack as they are about to walk into a trap laid by the Germans. To raise the stakes, Blake’s older brother is among the 1,600 men whose lives depend upon them. As the two boys journey across the German lines and French towns, they must battle against the enemy army and the landscape for their survival. 

“1917” is one of the most stressful non-horror films I’ve ever watched. The writing and editing keep you closely bound to the two boys, which makes every time they are shot at or an explosion goes off near them seem even more alarming. It’s a bit of a tough watch, as one would expect from a World War I film. There are dead animals, corpses, mud, and giant rats shown galore — however, it remains fairly tasteful and seems to make its point about the horrors of war without being gratuitously gross. 

1917

The film is obviously a massive achievement in technology and artistry. The sheer scale of the production design is astounding as there are so many different settings from trenches to a town on fire. The sound work on the film is wonderful as they combine the sound of shots and explosions with the beautiful score by Thomas Newman and the sound of mud squelching underfoot. Even the way they navigated lighting as they go in and out of buildings within a shot was splendid. There’s no questioning that this is the cinematic achievement of 2019 in terms of production. 

“1917” is one of the most stressful non-horror films I’ve ever watched…It’s a bit of a tough watch, as one would expect from a World War I film…At its heart, “1917” tells a story about the destruction that war.

The screenplay by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is much better than is typically seen in a war film. Mendes and Wilson-Cairns manage to find humor (like Blake remarking “Even their rats are bigger than ours!”), but also address difficult topics like the issues that many soldiers experienced when returning home. World War I was the first war that saw destruction on this level, with the new technology available, and the film does a great job depicting it without forcing the point. In fact, the movie has a subtle anti-war spin to it; the whole point of the young men’s quest is to stop an attack. 

“1917” has an ensemble of talented British actors even if most of them get only a few minutes of screentime. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott all make an impression;  there’s a great joke in there that’s delightful for fans who know Scott as the “Hot Priest” on “Fleabag.” Richard Madden makes the absolute most of his few minutes; he proves he’s a masterful actor, especially in his use of facial expressions. Anyone who can make me cry while being onscreen for less than five minutes impresses me. 

yep 1917

McKay and Chapman are the heart of the film. McKay gets some lovely tender moments to offset the more survivalist nature of his work in most of the film. A lot of his performance is expertly portrayed through his facial expressions and body language especially as his character is more reserved. On the other hand, Chapman’s Blake is very much still a child — brash and impulsive, headstrong, quick to tell a joke. They provide the perfect foils to each other and Chapman’s boyishness makes his role even more effective. There is one scene in particular that likely guarantees them to both get more great roles in the future. 

“1917,” under the talented hands of Sam Mendes, is one of the best war movies ever made and one of the best of 2019. 

I appreciated that while the film is mostly populated by white men, there were some black and Indian soldiers within the troops. This is historically accurate as over one million Indian soldiers served during World War I so it was great to see a film acknowledge that, even in a small way. 

The way that the film all comes together has to be credited to Mendes’s brilliant direction. His background in theatre direction shows in his ability to block a scene and to bring the most out of a quiet moment between two actors. The film is dedicated to his grandfather, who fought in WWI, and whose stories inspired him to make a movie about this war which is often ignored by cinema. “1917,” under the talented hands of Sam Mendes, is one of the best war movies ever made and one of the best of 2019. 

5 stars

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