In the beginning half of the decade director Sam Mendes delivered one of the finest films of the 2010’s with the stellar Skyfall, now as the decade ends and another wakes, he has produced another masterful piece of art with 1917.
Grasping a hold of your throat from the opening minutes and then refusing to let go for the remainder of the runtime, 1917 is among the most disquieting, intense, and powerful cinematic experiences I’ve been left with.
A master of the art of building and building and building tension before it allows you a moment’s false breath and then exploding out, 1917 conjures up the feelings and gasping-for-air sensation of the similarly brilliant Parasite. Yet it maintains it for longer. It forces you to watch unblinking. Without ever taking a moment to cut the tension.
Much will and has been said of Mendes’ decision to frame the movie as one long, continuous take. It is as well-realized and shocking a narrative choice as I’ve seen this year. Never letting you off the hook. Wanting to tire and exhaust and make you bend as the waves of Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake’s story unspools before you.
That story, of Schofield and Blake’s hellish odyssey across the western front to relay a message that could save the lives of 1600 men, Blake’s brother among them, is a beautifully and tragically rendered version of Homer’s great epic. Depicting the horrors, wonder, and futility of this most tragic and pointless of conflicts.
Roger Deakins conjures up perhaps the finest images and shots of his stellar career in showing life on the western front as it enters its fourth wretched year. The broken and shattered bodies of men, horses, dogs, and more lay forth as rats, alongside mother nature herself, struggle to reclaim the bombed out craters, trenches, and ruins of humanity’s civilization that define northern France.
There were more than a few shots that left me speechless and instantly thinking of the Twitter account One Perfect Shot. What Deakins and Mendes do to show you this world in all its shades and horror is both intoxicating and horrific. Death simply swirls and fills many of its nooks and crannies.
The true power of 1917 though is in its focus on the humans who fought this war: the various glimpses and quick vignettes you are given of the various lost souls who Blake and Schofield encounter on their trek. Each imbues the film and the characters with an added dimension of what this war has done to the collective psyche of man and the traumas and lives kept living despite it all.
But this is truly two men’s film as Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay deliver breathless and truly brilliant performances as Blake and Schofield. Loss, grief, rage, passion, futility, hope, beauty, and more are conveyed in the two’s fantastic performances and often without the slightest of words said. MacKay in particular has a truly astounding ability to convey so much and such raw near overwhelming emotion with just his eyes that I constantly found myself enraptured and stuck in place.
All that he sees and all that he must endure is captured and reflected in his haunting and pained eyes. It’s truly remarkable.
In one of my favorite moments of the film, after so much has occured to Blake and Schofield. After the flames of hell themselves have been unleashed on a ghost town, after so many countless near escapes, we are treated to a quiet slow scene of a single soldier singing to a company of men. It was beautiful and soul-replenishing after all that had come before and it swung away at my emotions like little else the film produced. It was here, in this tiny moment that the eyes and facial expressions of George MacKay more perfectly captured the emotional and traumatic arc of Schofield then any words could. I am still nearly brought to tears thinking back on it.
The grand and soaring epic moments and the most quiet, simple, human of moments and actions are the lifeblood of 1917 and it is constantly elevated by it all. Featuring some of the career-best work of Mendes and Deakins, with a thoughtful, deeply intimate story and purpose at its core. 1917 forces us to unblinkingly look and see the awful wretchedness of this supposed War to End All Wars and to experience how thoughtless, cruel, and truly horrifying its pointlessness were. In doing so, 1917 stands as a cinematic masterpiece and one of the finest films of the decade it closes out and the bar to reach for the one just beginning.