Film reviews: is 1917 really deserving of this awards show buzz?

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Set during World War I, 1917 follows two British soldiers – Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) – as they attempt to cross over into enemy territory. Will they overcome the impossible to deliver the message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades – including Blake’s own brother?

Awards season is in full swing, and here with 1917 we have a heavyweight contender that fits the pale and male profile voters always seem to be thirsting for. Sam Mendes, keen to blast away those Bond cobwebs (and your socks), has served up a visceral portion of WW1 horror. 

And be warned, dear reader, this is not for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach.

Set on the 6 April 1917, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Tommen from Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay, Pride), are charged by Captain Colin Firth with an extremely daunting task: They must deliver an urgent message to a regiment on the front lines (in which Blake’s older brother serves), across enemy-held territory. Why? To warn them that the attack they’re about to embark on is actually a trap set by the Germans that will result in the deaths of 1,600 British soldiers, of course.

And so, with the fate of thousands resting on their shoulders, a keen young rookie and cautious Somme veteran embark on a treacherous mission across the apocalyptic terrain of No Man’s Land. 

The plot of the film is simple; get from A to B without dying, like a monstrous obstacle course. And to make sure we are fully immersed in Blake and Schofield’s harrowing journey, the film plays out in real-time, only allowing additional hours to pass when there is a brief blackout. Indeed, it’s shot in what appears to be one continuous take (although it’s actually made up of 7-9 minute takes seamlessly stitched together by post-production wizards). This effect, while drawing the viewer into the brutality of WW1, also leaves you with a feeling that you could be a silent participant in a VR game that should never be released. The score by Thomas Newman serves to ramp up the tension to stomach-churning urgency, so much so that I found my hands kept creeping up to clutch my shoulders in a kind of strange self-comforting hug.

The cinematography – which comes from the legendary Roger Deakins, frequent Mendes collaborator and Cohen brothers Stalwart – is deservedly getting a lot of praise. Not only is the ‘one-take’ effect incredibly impressive, but there are also scenes of strange beauty surrounding the horror, such as a bombed French village lit to resemble the underworld. It is astonishing to look at.

If some of this sounds a little Dunkirk-esque, that’s because it is. It bears more than a few similarities to Christopher Nolan’s WW2 epic, particularly in its habit of using young fairly unknown actors to lead the story, and familiar faces of a certain age to provide sage advice/punch home a plot point. After the film I couldn’t help but imagine Sam Mendes humming Anything You Can Do whilst shadily eyeing Nolan. 

1917 film review
1917 film review: Sam Mendes shows the futility of war in real-time.

But maybe that’s unfair. 1917 is based on stories Mendes’ own grandfather told him about his service during WW1, and the film is dedicated to his memory. And the script is co-written by Mendes and 31-year-old writer, Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful). 

Of his writing partner Mendes has said “I wanted a woman, and someone who was younger. I didn’t want to be in an echo chamber, another middle-aged man talking about war movies.” So, although this film isn’t coming close to passing Bechdel test (war films rarely ever do), it’s refreshing to know that in coming into being 1917 wasn’t as singularly male as I assumed it to be.

Before gold figurine season is over, 1917’s filmmakers will surely have to make a bit more room on their shelves. It has already won two Golden Globes (Best Drama and Best Director), picked up nine Bafta nods, and will presumably be featured heavily when the Oscar nominations are announced on Monday 13 January. 

Whatever our personal feelings about the staid male paleness of recent award announcements, 1917 does deserve its acclaim. It may be fairly thin on character development, but it’s a powerful and extremely tense depiction of the brutality of war. 

And, importantly, it features Fleabag’s Hot Priest. Natch.

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Images: Universal

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Emily Gargan

Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.

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