Much is made of World War I drama 1917 as a technical exercise as much as its plot.
The film is constructed to follow a one shot style visual while using a highly detailed surrounding environment. It is billed as allowing you to experience the world as the characters on display do.
The story at its heart is a fairly simple premise, almost akin to a “stop the bomb” style thing. However, this can still be seen as something that is able to create a base for exploration.
It is certainly a recipe that has proved successful, with a decent haul of BAFTA, Golden Globe and Oscar awards the high points of its award season success, with the film also proving a modest box office hit and receiving general acclaim along with that of the critics.
The film almost eases the audience into its world. It begins with two young British soldiers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McaKay) wandering through the trenches on a softly lit morning to an office, where they have been summoned to a briefing.
Awaiting them is General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who is waiting with intelligence and a mission. The intelligence reveals that the Germans on the other side of No Man’s Land have made a strategic retreat but are waiting with reinforcements to ambush a British battalion attempting to follow.
Erinmore duly orders Blake and Schofield to reach Colonel Mackenzie on the front-line with a note of his orders to stop the attack, which is shaping up to be a suicide mission that would threaten 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother.
From there, the gang are sent on their way. They have to first make it through the British trenches, No Man’s Land and the German trenches, which may or may not have been abandoned, and then further obstacles to reach the new front line.
Whether you feel cynical or not about the film using overzealous editing and a few time jumps to fuse a series of long takes into a one-shot piece, the technical work here is superb. Lead by highly regarded cinematographer Roger Deakins and award winning editor Lee Smith, the film hangs together.
It also brings life to its bleak vistas. The realisations of the horrors of World War I are well realised, particularly when they first break through the trenches into No Man’s Land – a grey vista of barbed wire, damp craters, ruined landscapes, human and horse remains, and giant rats.
The film is also good at creating suspense out of this. Mendes has talked up inspiration from horror cinema as much as historic war films, and this is evident, particularly in the scenes in the German trenches and later scenes in a burnt out French town.
Helping this hang together is the talent. The film revolves around Chapman and MacKay, with various other actors dropping in and out as needs be. But they hold it together, giving good performances as two young adults in a situation far more horrible than they initially comprehended.
Weak leads could easily have sunk this picture, but the two provide compelling opposites while well handing their way through the world on offer.
The film is not perfect. There are some moments when the technical elements stretch credibility, while initially, the moments in the burnt out towns take a while to truly kick in sync. Part of this may be down to the fact that the arrival into the night scenes set here is down in a way that stretches the one-shot by use of a time jump, to the point that feels like it threatens to break the format.
It also does steer more readily in to the codes and conventions of war movies – indeed, one critic pointed out similarities with one of the plot strands of the 1981 war move Gallipoli.
For the most part, however, 1917 keeps things working. Its a suspenseful movie that doesn’t airbrush the darkness of its subject matter, and is well acted out by its central leads. It adds up to a highly watchable whole, and one that is certainly a compellingly viewable movie.