Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
It is Spring 1917 and the height of World War I. The Germans are retreating and the British are starting to close in. But the lines of communication have been cut, and a squad of 1600 British men are about to walk into a trap. Two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given the impossible task to cross enemy territory and stop the mission – and they have less than a day to complete their mission.
My palms are sweating from typing that Synopsis and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing-up just thinking about 1917. I was lucky enough to watch the Film over three weeks ago, and I am still struggling to catch my breath. With 1917, Oscar-winning Co-Writer/Director Sam Mendes has delivered a positively-electric experience unlike any other you will see in a theatre anytime soon. For two hours, Mendes takes us on an intense adventure against the clock, barely stopping to smell the flowers or take stock of the precarious situation these two young soldiers have found themselves in. They are introduced just as quickly as their mission, and the rest of the Film that follows is a harrowing race to the finish.
The story at the heart of 1917 might sound overly-simplistic (and a bit too easy to compare to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece Dunkirk), but the design and look of the Film is far from it. Oscar-winning Cinematographer Roger Deakins has taken great care to ensure that the camera is always moving and never stationary. He also makes it expertly weave in and out of the action practically seamlessly, no matter how chaotic the scene (think along the same lines of what Chivo was able to accomplish with Best Picture-winner Birdman, but with significantly more action and substantially less talking). I could keep writing endlessly on how effective the camera work is and how it practically becomes a character all in itself. But all that would do is write around the fact that what Deakins is able to capture here is stunning and absolutely extraordinary. Some of these action sequences are so elaborate and claustrophobic that you will be wondering long afterwards just where and how he was able to shoot these scenes without destroying the camera – or hurting himself or the crew for that matter. Deakins’ work in 1917 is next-level, and must be seen to be believed.
Where 1917 also excels is in its depiction of the two men at the heart of the mission. MacKay and Chapman have a wonderful comradery from the start, and you genuinely feel every step they take, every shot they make and every injury they sustain. They wear their emotions brilliantly, tapping into them in subtle and precise ways. The desperation in their faces and voices in some of these scenes is heartbreaking, riveting and mesmerizing. While we only learn precious few details about them, the ones we do gain insight on are more than enough to be invested in their journey. Mendes strived for gritty realism in 1917, and these young Thespians are committed from moment one right through until the bitter end.
1917 is an epic, must-see journey through hell that should be experienced on the biggest screen you can find. Mendes has crafted an emotional resonant Film that will shake you to the bone and keep you on the edge of your seat. It is a monumental achievement through and through, with terrific performances from MacKay and Chapman and legendary Cinematography from Deakins. When Martin Scorsese was talking about Cinema the past few weeks, he was talking about movies like 1917.
Universal Pictures Canada release 1917 in select theatres on Christmas Day and across Canada on Friday, January 10, 2020.