“Time is the enemy…” (1917 review)

After practicing with the opening sequence of ‘Spectre’, director Sam Mendes brings us a relentless WWI film that appears to all take place in one shot. A breathtakingly visceral film, it proves what an accomplished voice in cinema Sam Mendes is.

It’s April 1917, and two young British soldiers – Schofield and Blake – are called into a briefing with General Erinmore. They’re informed that Aerial Intelligence has proven an apparent retreat by the Germans is a trap, and that they’re planning on ambushing the 1,600 British troops that will attack them in 8 hours time. With the phone lines cut and the clock ticking, Schofield and Blake must hand deliver a message calling off the attack in order to save the troops, Blake’s brother being among them. In doing so, they’ll cross no-man’s land and enter into enemy territory, where threat and danger lie around every corner.

The film, with his royal highness Roger Deakins on cinematography, was filmed in long takes, cleverly stitched together to appear as though it’s one single shot. Behind the scenes footage proves just how phenomenally difficult this technique was to pull off, but it 100% works, and the end result is breathtaking. Importantly however, this one-shot approach is far more than just a cool camera trick. Mendes uses this technique to completely immerse the audience in the story of the film, and surround them with the same realism and tension the characters are suffering from. As the camera snakes round corners, we discover the world at the same pace the soldiers do, and the result is terrifying but exciting.

The two leads, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are astonishing in their portrayals of Schofield and Blake respectively. The camera never leaves their side as we view everything from their perspective, and the emotion they convey is impressive. It’s evident just how committed they were to the project, and by giving the most real performances they could, it translates into astonishing work on screen. The two are backed up by a whole host of famous faces in minor roles, though I won’t mention them because I found discovering the A-Listers scattered through the film a lot more exciting.

The visuals of the film are incredibly real and visceral, with appropriate wardrobe and an impressive scale considering the almost entirely outdoor setting. As mentioned, Roger Deakins was the cinematographer, and once again he proves himself as an unrivalled voice in visual storytelling. Despite the fact the camera never stops moving, every frame of this film looks gorgeous, with a great colour pallet and naturalistic lighting adding to the beautiful aesthetic.

The score by Thomas Newman is another masterpiece by the world’s greatest yet most under-appreciated composer (with 14 nominations and not a single win, he’s the 4th most nominated person in history to still not own an Oscar; Sacrilege if you ask me, he should have at LEAST 3). His score is atmospheric and broody, with a beautifully soft cello melody running throughout. When the action begins, he also demonstrates a clear understanding of clean electronic noise, with a deep bass and clever synthesisers to maintain the pace. This, blended with excellent sound design that covers everything from muddy footsteps to entire tenches collapsing, means the film sounds as great as it looks.

The film is rich in emotion, pathos and sorrow, and while it’s not as bombastic as films like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’, it’s certainly as successful in conveying what life was like during their respective wars. It’s an important film from a story perspective as well as a technical one, and is a triumphant example of how snazzy filmmaking works best when it services the story at hand.

5 stars 5

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