I resisted seeing this Best Picture Oscar nominee because it is a war film (not my favourite genre) and promos had made it seem a bit epic and action-heavy rather than introspective. Boy was I wrong.
I might have realised it if I’d taken the time to identify it as a British film rather than a Hollywood patriotic cliche. Fair enough, Sam Mendes directed two recent Bond films (Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015)) so 1917 could have been all style, no substance, but he also made American Beauty (1999) which was significant in its time.
1917 takes a simple action – a message must be carried across no man’s land and a recently relinquished enemy front line in order to save a battalion – and crafts a seamless, cinematic race against time that also feels like an intimate character study.
It’s (of course) 1917, which means the war in Europe has been going for three years and, as we now know, has become a war of attrition, at least on the Western Front. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, an unrecognisable Tommen Baratheon) is given the task to take the message and brings along mate, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay who is so wonderful as Bromley in Pride (2014)).
The German front line has retreated and another battalion, that includes Blake’s brother Joseph (Richard Madden – Rob Stark and Tommen as brothers!), is set to attack the new front line. Aerial photos show the line is impregnable so the message contains orders to stand down. Simple, but the duo must cross war-ravaged and booby-trapped land to get to their destination, all the while evading capture.
One significant elegance is the feel that we are following a single, fluid camera shot from start to end. It’s not of course, but the edits are subtle and it heightens the intimacy of Blake and Schofield’s story, as we feel we are right there with them in real time. The film is scattered with British acting greats – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth – but they are bit players in a much larger tale.
The helplessness, hopelessness and casual heroism of war is beautifully rendered. It is a world of men – there is one young woman in it in a small but resonant part (Claire Duburcq) – but this seems authentic to the story being told. Unlike similar epic Hollywood war films (Private Ryan I mean you), there is little sentimentality and no attempt to excuse or extol patriotism or ideology. A cautionary tale that will, no doubt, do nothing to stop future conflicts.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.