19 January 2020.
This film by English director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”, “Revolutionary Road”, “Skyfall”) is not your usual war film. Not about the Russian Revolution of the same year but about WWI, it is dedicated to his grandfather’s stories of that conflict. Instead of making it ultra realistic as were “Saving Private Ryan” or “Gallipoli”, Mendes has created a grandiose, almost operatic tribute to his grandfather’s memories. With impressive camerawork by Oscar-anointed Roger Deakins and evocative music, this work portrays the fear and horror of war with a nearly Wagnerian Sturm und Drang.
A plane crashing right next to our protagonists, a French town spectacularly on fire, chases in labyrinthine halls, cherry blossoms reminiscent of Madame Butterfly, all suggest an exaggerated opera setting and raise the mood above the terror of warfare.
But the terror is there as two young British recruits (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) are sent off on a mission across enemy territory to deliver a crucial message to a battalion planning an onslaught on the German front. Success is doubtful but could save thousands of lives.
Along with two mega-stars, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, who appear only at the very beginning and end of the film, the dialogue at times feels too unreal for casual wartime banter. And the pace of the recruits’ odyssey is often stretched theatrically to create both the tension and immensity of the moment, in an almost Terence Malick-like manner. This is an epic work that requires suspension of disbelief.
Mendes is a known master at both theater and film direction, as he has shown in his previous works such as the 1999 “American Beauty”, which was a powerful observation of suburban America with the feel of a Greek tragedy. Despite being his first film project, it won multiple awards including 5 Oscars and 6 Baftas.
This time, again, he has walked away with Best Drama and Best Director awards at the recent Golden Globes, which are a precursor to the Oscars. And it has just been announced that 1917 has picked up 10 nominations for the coming Academy Awards. All those nominations and honors are highly deserved when one considers the amazing one-shot feel of this film that puts the viewer in the middle of the action, plus the technical and architectural precision of the lengthy filmmaking preparation. The camera works almost as another character in the film, culminating in an eerie intimacy between the two protagonists and the audience.
Those and many others – including script, music, decor – are some of the reasons that make cinema the greatest art form of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Superb **** Very Good *** Good ** Mediocre * Miserable – no stars
Neptune Ravar Ingwersen reviews film extensively for publications in Switzerland. She views 4 to 8 films a week and her aim is to sort the wheat from the chaff for readers.