Clearly the best film I have seen in 2019 – hands down – in terms of action, cinematography, direction, performances an art direction. There is no greater pleasure than watching an almost perfect piece and 1917 is a minor masterpiece.
The story or film is based on, according to the closing credits to stories told by Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes. It is assumed that these stories were told to director Sam Mendes (SKYFALL, ROAD TO PERDITION, Oscar for Best Picture: AMERICAN BEAUTY) as grandfather to grandson. The situation is that Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are two Lance Corporals – and messengers. At the height of the First World War during Spring 1917 in northern France, the two young British soldiers (looking very much like boys enlisted before age, as seen in last year’s riveting documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD by Peter Jackson, an excellent companion piece to this film) are given a seemingly impossible mission to deliver a message from a general (Colin Firth) which will warn of an ambush during one of the skirmishes soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich. They race against time, crossing enemy territory to deliver the warning and keep a British battalion of 1,600 men, which includes Blake’s own brother, from walking into a deadly trap. The pair must give their all to accomplish their mission by surviving the war to end all wars.
Director Mendes and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns up the angst with Schofiled damaging his hand wth barbed wire at the start of their mission. In less than 15 minutes, an unexpected explosion (one that will surely cause many an audience to literally jump out of their seats) almost leaves him dead buried under a huge pile of rubble while the shaft they are in begin to collapse under more explosions. The element of surprise (or shock) is ever present, so do not expect any periods of calm.
The most amazing achievement is the film’s cinematography by Richard Deakens. The beginning sequence where the two make their way along the trenches is done in seems to be one long take, marvellously and miraculously executed in what is cinematic wonder and grace. Apparently the effect of the one continuously long take was achieved by both elaborate long shots and choreographed camera movements. The camera is always in front of the two running men, showing their expressions of fear and anxiety where the background reveal the horrid conditions of the trenches and the other soldiers. Another great feat is the crashing of a German bomber plane almost on top of the lance corporals. That segment marks not only the film’s best segment but the one that changes the whole course (the spoiler will not be disclosed in this review) of the story.
The horror of WWI is revealed in all its goriness from the dead bodies, the rats, mud, crows and bleak skies. It is a dystopian landscape that depicts the end of the world as seen by anyone on 1917 Northern France. The music by Thomas Newman is appropriately scored.
The film’s comes with a message as delivered by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that hope can be a very dangerous thing. Ironically, the opposite of this message is delivered in another Christmas film, JUST MERCY.