1917 review George MacKay

Year: 2019
Director(s): Sam Mendes
Writer(s): am Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Region of Origin: USA
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Rating: R
Color, 119 mins

Synopsis: Two young British soldiers during the First World War are given an impossible mission. (Source)

Despite no shortage of war films, 1917 is absolutely its own beast. While its contrast between desperation and beauty isn’t anything new, it’s a film that’s more felt than seen, a perfect convergence of artistic precision and visceral emotion. Presented via a single camera take (with some expertly hidden cuts), director Sam Mendes and Roger Deakins have created a wholly immersive experience. They’ve dropped us right into WW1 trenches, front lines and brushes with near death, all in real time, and without a single moment of respite. The result is easily the year’s technical marvel, completely breathtaking and unparalleled. It’s also as massive as it is personal, a sincere tribute to bravery and a feat of cinematic mastery. 

In the tail end of WW1, two British soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are resting on a field in northern France. Their idyllic day doesn’t last long, however, because they’re quickly given a mission of utmost importance. Germany has curiously withdrawn from a stretch of land. The move has lead a British Colonel named Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) to mistakenly view this as a sign of retreat. Before his company is set to lead charge, Blake and Chapman are sent on a two-man mission across front lines and into enemy territory. The hope is that the pair will be able to alert Mackenzie before he sends 1600 men into a fatal trap. With nothing but each other and their wits, Blake and Schofield set off on the mission of their lives.  

While the film is no doubt a series of complex artistic and narrative calculations, its fundamental and intimate simplicity allows it to cut deep. Throughout, Mendes is contrasting big and small. A small-scale operation with gargantuan importance. The threat of a massive massacre amidst the danger of what lies just beyond one’s reach. And perhaps most important, a promise kept in the face of seemingly impossible odds. On every level, the film’s technicality provides for some of the year’s most jaw-dropping set pieces. Still, all of it is only ever in service to its characters and their will to push on. Because of this, the film’s gimmick never feels like one, always pushing story, character and narrative both forward and inward. We’re completely buckled in to a cinematic journey that shakes us to the core.

1917 review Benedict Cumberbatch

Within the film’s dazzling wizardry, are the performances of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay. Both of these men ground everything with the emotion needed. As we’re trapped within their journey, their chemistry and ability to balance awe with terror is what makes the entire thing worth it. MacKay in particular carries a large portion of the film on his own, making the effort a one man show that’s inescapable and haunting. Even though there are a few well-placed cameos strung throughout, Chapman and MacKay are the film’s soul. 

1917 succeeds by using its impeccable craft in service of something that actually makes us feel. Focusing on the quaint, yet horrendous backdrop of WW1, the film paints a picture of how things have both escalated while also remaining fundamentally the same. There is beauty amidst unspeakable tragedy and bravery in the midst of conflicts that reduce men to pawns. Embedded within a series of elegant vignettes, is not just a look at the horrors of war, but a complex meditation on what makes life worth living.