There isn’t a layer of emotional resonance within which Sam Mendes’ latest feature does not excel. A First World War thriller, boasting the dramatic surety Mendes nailed in Skyfall and all but lost in Spectre, 1917 quickly takes hostage of the heart and refuses release. It is electric, devastating and charged with a profound sense for the absolute horror of warfare. That the story comes from the original experience of Mendes’ own grandfather on the Western Front is paramount. This one matters to him sincerely.
‘1917’ is actually a truncated title. More accurately, Mendes’ film ought to be named April 6 1917, taking place, as it does, almost entirely in real time and on that very date. Moreover, 1917 is presented as though captured in a single, entirely unedited, shot. Bar one or two flashes of black, each and every cut made is imperceptibly woven into a delicately achieved whole. The effect is marvellously involving and handled with intelligence enough to sidestep the accusations of gimmickry that normally descend on such creative decisions. Roger Deakins’ camera, beautifully mounted, pushes through all manner of traumas, from the flies swarming around dead horses to the barbed wire abandoned on no man’s land. There is precious little focus: this is simply how it is and how one imagines it was seen.
To this end, the film is not for the faint of heart. At every turn, corpses claw from entrapments of soil and rubble, desperately reaching for aid that will never come. Tonally too, the film is beset with paradigms of futility. If the plot concerns the valour of two young men in delivering orders across the hellscape of No Man’s Land, it is only to warn that the enemy ahead is simply too powerful to be beaten. Indeed, as we are lead through German trenches and fortification, it is only to the revelation that British infrastructures pale in comparison: ‘even their rats are bigger than ours’. And yet, hope will out. It must. Later, a recital of Edward Lear’s sordid Jumbles will close to the distant sound of church bells calling. Crying out from a church that blazes and crumbles still.
Far more than the sum of its technical achievements, 1917 is cast with equal panache. George MacKay (Where Hands Touch) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded by the Light) lead as Lance Corporals William Schofield and Thomas Blake, one embittered and wary, the other tinged still with guns-ho naiveté, both tasked by Colin Firth’s dour General Erinmore to track down Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) and deliver a warning. Aerial reconnaissance has revealed that the apparent retreat of German forces from a sector of the Western Front is but a trap to draw the Allies unto the new Hindenburg Line. With all telephone lines cut, 1,600 lives at stake and a dawn deadline looming, Schofield and Blake must set forth on foot. The odds are not in their favour and when tragedy does strike, it comes far sooner and more brutally than might have been expected. There’s nothing traditionally Hollywood about it.
That Blake’s elder brother (Richard Madden) stands among those at risk only heightens the stakes. Much like Saving Private Ryan before it, 1917 is a tale of dichotomous perspective. It is a story both of the wider threat to peace and the very singular drive to save just one life. Unlike Spielberg’s Ryan, however, there is precious little room here for the saccharine. Certainly, a stellar score by Thomas Newman plays not for sentiment but as pulse racer and outright heart stopper. Deployed in unity with Mendes’ breathless momentum, the effect is relentlessly captivating and exists in one of cinema’s most immersive, most insatiable, sets. Blockbusters spend millions these days on creating entirely imaginary worlds but no longer do viewers truly marvel at the capability of filmmakers to achieve it. With its scratological eye for the grit of earth and realist murk, 1917 is, however, beyond comprehension.
One can only imagine the choreography that allowed so technical a feat to be achieved but it is a testament to Mendes’ skill that such never distracts from the power of his narrative. This is, first and foremost, a beautiful and terrifying thriller. It will take your breath away.