September 28, 2020

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Boots on the ground

Stunning First World War drama sets viewers in the muck and mire of the trenches, but misses out on emotion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/1/2020 (261 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This expertly crafted First World War film, which follows a pair of British soldiers on an urgent frontline mission and is meant to look as if it has been shot in two long, unbroken takes, is a remarkable technical feat.

As a concise and visceral statement of the horror and waste of trench warfare, 1917 — which last week won Golden Globe awards for Best Director and Best Drama Motion Picture — is an extraordinary achievement. Filmmaker Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty) has crafted a physically immersive experience. As gripping as this on-the-ground approach can be, however, the story struggles to be equally emotionally immersive.

This is partly due to weak spots in the script, which Mendes co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns. But there’s also a paradox in the film’s technical bravado, which is stunning but at times self-defeating. There are key points in 1917 when we should focus on what the characters are doing. Instead we’re marvelling at what the cinematographer (Academy Award winner Roger Deakins) is doing.

The set-up is simple, delivered in a terse briefing by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth at his most clipped). The Germans have seemingly retreated from their fortifications, but aerial reconnaissance shows they are actually planning a trap. Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman of Game of Thrones) and Lance Cpl. Schofield (True History of the Kelly Gang’s George Mackay) have just a few hours to deliver a message to the commanding officer of a nearby battalion and save 1,600 men, including Blake’s older brother, from walking into a massacre.

Imdb/TNS</p><p>George MacKay plays a soldier sent on a harrowing mission in 1917. </p>

Imdb/TNS

George MacKay plays a soldier sent on a harrowing mission in 1917.

From this clear starting point, we move through a landscape of chaos, confusion and slaughter. The camera tracks Blake and Schofield in a nightmarish walk-and-talk, which gradually reveals their complementary characters. Blake, thinking of his brother, is chipper and keen, while Schofield remains weary and wary.

Staying close to the pair, the film drags the viewer alongside, first through the press and muck of the British trenches and then through the hellscape of no man’s land, a wasteland of mud and flooded craters and blasted trees, of rats and carrion birds and the clawing hands of corpses. Another stand-out sequence takes us through a ruined French town, alternately lit up by mortar fire and plunged into pitch darkness.

This film’s evocation of the physical terrain of war is incredibly effective, but its depiction of human encounters is uneven.

Some scenes are indelible. Andrew Scott (Sherlock’s Moriarty and Fleabag’s "Hot Priest") is the sardonic lieutenant who sends Schofield and Blake on their way toward the German lines, and his parting "cheerio" expresses all the bitter fatalism and dark irony of the Lost Generation that managed to survive this war. There’s also a brief, funny scene of working-class infantrymen doing savage impersonations of their posh officers. Other sequences, however, such as a quiet interlude with a French civilian, feel forced.

At times, Mendes seems to try for the raw realism of the Normandy invasion sequence in Saving Private Ryan. At other points, he seems to be yearning after the strange poetry of The Thin Red Line, especially with a suspended, dreamlike scene set in an Edenic forest as a soldier sings Wayfaring Stranger. Mendes never quite finds his own tone.

The film’s unique strength lies in its hyper-focused approach. The concentration on one minor mission might feel limiting, but at its best 1917 becomes a refracting lens for the vastness of the Great War’s suffering and loss. We don’t know whether Blake and Schofield will manage to save this one battalion on this one day. We do know there will be many other battalions and many other days.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

George MacKay in 1917. (Universal) </p>

George MacKay in 1917. (Universal)

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography

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