Just when you thought the anxiety-induced cinema visits were done with after this week’s other big release Uncut Gems you were wrong. To paraphrase Al Pacino: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in“. The surroundings are different, the words just as potent. For this week’s other Oscar contender is 1917, the new film from Sam Mendes who steps away from Bond duties to tackle a subject very close to his heart. That in itself is a herculean task given the setting, but with the juxtaposition of telling the film in “one take” has made it seemingly almost impossible on paper. Almost.
Taking his story from countless stories told to him by his grandfather, Mendes’ film tells of two young soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) who have been tasked with getting a message to a fleet who are about to engage with the enemy after being lured into a trap. Time is the enemy as the tagline promises and it is just that: the boys have mere hours to navigate No Man’s Land and deliver the message, one that could also save the life of Blake’s older brother who is part of the brigade.
A trick of the trade utilised in various different ways, the one-shot trick is like walking a tightrope without anything to balance on: precarious, insane and pretty much nowhere to go but down. But when it works, it works gangbusters, whether in the superb real-time thriller Victoria or Alejandro Innarritu‘s spellbinding Birdman starring Michael Keaton (it’s still a sore spot that he didn’t win Best Actor that year, but we digress), if the framework can withstand the pressure then it may be a trump card. And for 1917, it works superbly.
A logisicstal and narrative tango, Mendes and collaborators Krysty Wilson-Cairns, Roger Deakins and Lee Smith (co-writer, DoP and editor respectively) have triumphed with something utterly riveting and spectacular on one side, moving and devastating on the other all seamlessly weaved together to stunning effect. Not only does it showcase the power of friendship and comradery but also the triumph of the human spirit in the face of an impossible evil with the film’s weighty subject matter brought to the screen with a pathos and understanding. It feels devastatingly real on every level and while the ferocity of war is brought chillingly to life, it is the humanity at the core that makes the film both humble and extraordinary.
His cast is exquisite, too, and with beautiful turns of Mackay and Chapman as well as hefty extended cameos for the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch, they only bring all of those layers and effectiveness to an even greater level. It’s already one two major Golden Globes in the week before its release and with it being the most current of all the contenders, 1917 may whip the carpet from under its equally impressive compatriots to take the big prizes. But whoever takes home the prize, it’s us who have really won here.
Drama, War | UK, 2020 | 15 | Cinema | 10th January 2020 (UK) | Entertainment One | Dir.Sam Mendes | George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq.