Friday, January 10, 2020



1917 is a WWI picture about two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, who are sent with a message of warning to a neighboring regiment, telling them not to attack lest they fall into a trap and be massacred by the enemy. It's told in real time. And oh yeah, it looks like it's done in one take.

Technical masterpiece, immersive wonder, blah blah blah. Here's the fact of the matter: "one take" films are useless gimmicks -- unless -- they have, like all good films do, a story worth telling, and worth telling in that specific way. This film not only has the right story, led by talented actors playing honest and beautiful characters -- its technical aspect actually supports and strengthens the story instead of being a distraction from it. Now that is impressive.

Directed by Sam Mendes. Co-written with Krysty Wilson-Cairns.

I spent a lot of time since August worrying that the continuous camera view would prevent me from becoming invested -- or even worse that the filmmakers would skimp on things like character and meaning in favor of showing off their technical achievements. I needn't have worried. Films like Children of Men gave me reason to, where the long shots are made to amaze to the detriment of everything else -- but it's clear that Sam Mendes had the opposite mindset. He utilizes the long takes as a storytelling medium rather than artistic ploy, and finally I see the value of the technique.

To see the step-by-step journey of those two men; the small talk, the jokes, the pauses, the contention and friendship, the frantic action, and the quietly harrowing moments, all pressed together into the same continuous space and presented in a realistic pace of time; it brings a unique sense of connection. Not ten minutes go by before you feel like you know them, and when you aren't spoon-fed aspects of their character such as their desires and fears, but instead must find them within the passing details of their actions, the reward for your noticing is all the greater.

The challenge is making it look effortless.

Roger Deakins did the cinematography work, and what stands out about it is that it doesn't stand out. It's not showy and doesn't call attention to the behind-the-scenes challenges that no doubt existed. Achieving its lovely simplicity while also keeping the picture free of any empty space in need of a cut is deceptively hard. One bothersome thing about long takes is when the camera must move from person to person during a conversation or action, and the delay drags the pace down. Not so here. The plot, actors, and cinematography are crafted into a trinity knot; an interweaving dance that has no perceptible beginning or end, lead or follow, but where each element supports -- and leans on -- the others equally.

The pacing is incredible. The rise and fall of tension, action, and emotion all crafted in front of our eyes instead of spliced together in the editing room. Nothing against editing of course, but it's a testament to the dedication and effort put into this work that it thrills and moves on the same level as any other film, when the rhythm of pace is so vital to creating investment and holding attention. They had no room for error, so they were sure to have none. Because what's the point in creating a technical wonder if the story leaves you cold and the characters are paper-thin? Why bother telling a story with masterful command of technique unless it will move an audience through honest meaning?

If this movie had been no more than an impressive technological feat, I wouldn't care two beans about it.

Which brings me to the heart and soul of the film -- Schofield, Blake, and the two young, relative unknowns who play them -- George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. They are supported by the talents of Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden; and even in such brief roles these established actors bring great depth and detail. Still it was George and Dean always who held my attention, who I wanted to see more of, and whose two every-men characters I wanted to know better. I've been a fan of George MacKay for a while already, seeking out even his obscure bit-parts to see more of his work, but it was no pre-established bias that made me fall in love with his portrayal of Schofield.

MacKay brings depth and nuance that fills up every moment. He's not overly expressive, more internalized, yet his every thought is readable through a genuine performance that can only come out of a fundamental, and deeply empathetic understanding of the character on the page. He brings both the character, and the film to its fully realized life. Chapman is equally immersed. You can tell they are both there feeling and thinking as their characters rather than putting on a show and pretense. They play off each other as foils to reveal the other's character in the true British fashion of not saying what you really mean, and the subtle detail with which they achieve it makes me eager to be there again and search for further understanding between the lines.

"Be there again." As opposed to "see it again."

I guess there is something to be said for the immersive experience of this film after all. I just think it's important to note what it is that you're being immersed into. A perfectly choreographed dance of actors, sets, and camerawork? That is impressive, yes, but add what that dance means -- the poetry of it, the sense of humanity, the struggle of an individual with individual hopes and cares on full display down to the smallest detail -- and that's when an impressive feat becomes art. And it is that art into which we are being immersed.

It's not the immersive quality in itself, or the mastered technical achievements alone that makes this film remarkable; the immersion is only the path we travel. In the same way that we understand the intangible thoughts and motivations within the characters of Schofield and Blake by reading beyond the tangible surface of their words and actions, so 1917 uses what technological, material language it has at its disposal to express truths of the immaterial human soul that extend beyond what mere words can say.


  1. Okay, so this sounds amazing and I really want to see it now!! Who does Richard Madden play? I knew that he was in there but couldn't spot him in the trailer.

    1. Yeah Madden doesn't appear in the trailer, and I can't explain who he plays without venturing into spoilers... I could explain it if you want -- or you could just go and see for yourself! It's a great theater watch. Hope you enjoy!!

  2. Fabulous review, Sarah. However, I disagree with you on this -

    "What stands out about it is that it doesn't stand out. It's not showy and doesn't call attention to the behind-the-scenes challenges that no doubt existed."

    To me - Roger Deakins steals the film. Not saying the acting, emotions, and the anti-war message is overpowered by his work. It is because the way he makes the film poetic says a lot. Having seen the film twice on IMAX, he was my biggest reason for watching again. Its showy for good :)

    1. Thanks Mayank! Good to "see" you!

      I think the filming style is showy by nature. But I think Roger Deakins put effort into making the shots serve the story rather than show off by himself. So you're right that it's showy, and it is gorgeous and amazing to look at -- just not in overshadowing the story, yes. :)

    2. Yes. Never overshadowed the story :) Thanks btw. I watched Ad Astra (at last!). Can't wait to share my thoughts. Will re-read your review and comment.

    3. I don't know why the previous reply is posted as Unknown but it is me.

    4. Awesome! I'm eager to hear what you thought!!