It’s odd how we have kind of neglected World War I in film. There certainly have been films that cover this era, but nowhere near to the extent World War II has been covered. It’s always refreshing to take a lesser known page from the history books and bring it to life. With 1917 we have a great film that in my opinion gets hampered by self-imposed limitations.
“If you fail, it will be a massacre.”
Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (George McKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with crossing through enemy territory in order to deliver an urgent order to call off an attack that will lead to an ambush and the death of 1,600 men including Blake’s own brother. With a ticking clock and personal stakes our heroes must embark on this harrowing mission. Much like the bomb under Hitchcock’s proverbial table we’re immediately invested based off these two points. It’s a simple albeit effective way of puling viewers into the story. Aside from these motivations we know very little of these men. It’s not a bad thing and what little develops along the way helps flesh them out. This movie certainly sacrifices its characters, but thanks to the tension in the overall story it works.
“Hope is a dangerous thing.”
There has been a lot of talk about the film’s use of the ‘one shot’ filming style. It’s a tricky thing to pull this off well. You have to justify using this technique otherwise it will come off as gimmicky. And in spite of some truly magnificent moments I found it to be more of a gimmick. My personal problems with a lot of one shot films is the excessive use of close-ups since they can never cut away and the fact that the filmmakers need to find ways to hide edits in the film. Both of these issues crop up, especially the close-ups. While there are some interior shots that merit the use of close-ups there were other times where it truly was distracting to me.
On the plus side we have Roger Deakins behind the camera and he does some magnificent work. He does craft some awe inspiring moments (The German trench, the chase through the bombed out town, and the final run to name a few), but you can feel the limitations. Asking an artist to use limited tools to achieve a masterpiece is truly unfair, but bless Deakins for trying and succeeding for a good portion of 1917.
“They’re walking into a trap.”
Thank goodness this film has an absolutely stunning look. Costumes, sets, and props all work together selling the feel of this film and it pays off gloriously. In modern films much more attention has been given to crafting authentic period uniforms. Here you can feel all the painstaking effort the costume department put into their work. Matching them in quality is production/set designers. Everything from the spent brass shells to the rotting horse carcasses through No Man’s Land look unbelievably realistic to the point where seeing Schofield put his wounded hand through the torso of a corpse in genuinely cringe-inducing.
It is truly frustrating that this amazing film cannot come out from underneath the limitations of the one shot style. As the rest of the film is firing on all cylinders it takes what could’ve been an amazing film and left it with being a good film. 1917 is worth the watch, but I can’t help wondering what could’ve been.
Overall Score 4/5