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1917 - DVD Review

1917

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

INSPIRED by his own grandfather’s memories of surviving the First World War, Sam Mendes’ 1917 is a major cinematic achievement that excels on both a technical level and – most importantly – an emotional one.

Grabbing headlines for its astonishing visuals (courtesy of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins) and the way that in which it unfolds by way of a single tracking shot [split into two parts], the film could so easily have been distracting because of its filmmaking prowess.

But Mendes and his two young performers – George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman – succeed in pulling you into the emotional journey underpinning this tale, showcasing both the horror and randomness of war and the bravery and sacrifice that is intrinsic to it.

The plot is simple. On April 6, 1917, two young British soldiers in northern France, Schofield (MacKay) and Blake (Chapman), are given a mission to deliver a life-saving message to a distant battalion (and Blake’s brother) that could face being slaughtered at the hands of the Germans if they fail.

Their ensuing mission takes them through enemy terrains and forces them to confront both the absurdity and cold brutality of war. It is, by turns, as surreal as it is terrifying and occasionally hauntingly beautiful.

While thematic comparisons are sure to be drawn with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (given the brother scenario), Mendes’ film looks and feels like its own thing. It is deservedly being hailed as an instant classic to sit alongside the likes of Ryan, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and – perhaps most pertinently – Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (which also tackled WWI).

The first half is particularly compelling, as Schofield and Blake traverse No Man’s Land and zig-zag their way in and out of the muddy trenches that have entombed so many of their fallen comrades. It succeeds in capturing the grimness of those conditions and the very many dangers that the soldiers faced.

But the journey becomes increasingly more surreal as they venture away from the trenches, taking in farmland, countryside, villages and further battlefronts. It shows the devastation the campaign left in its wake, as well as its effect on both the French survivors and British soldiers they meet along the way.

1917

And yet the focus remains firmly on the two young men, with their everyman qualities and boyish camaraderie nicely portrayed by both MacKay and Chapman. Their sense of unease and fear is palpable, as is their naivety to a certain extent. There’s no denying that their casting is a master-stroke in that it drives home just how young these soldiers were – and just how wasteful any death was.

Yet while highlighting both the folly of war and the bravery incumbent in fighting it, Mendes doesn’t just deliver a history lesson [as vital as that is now that few WWI survivors remain]. He also infuses the film with a thriller aspect… a ticking clock scenario, which lends the film its breathless pace and energy.

Hence, by the time the story reaches its poignant conclusion, you may well feel as battered, bruised and battle-scarred as anyone that survives it [if, indeed, they do].

If there are criticisms, they are mostly to do with the filmmaking techniques Mendes employs and whether or not people will be distracted by them. The tracking shot does, admittedly, at times feel like a cinematic device that you feel compelled to keep an eye [so best to appreciate it], while the presence of some starry support – from Colin Firth to Benedict Cumberbatch via Mark Strong and Andrew Scott – also threatens to pull you out of the story… more so, the further in you get.

But in all other respects, this is a masterclass on so many levels: thriving as both a thrilling piece of cinema and an invaluable historical reminder of a truly horrifying conflict. It demands to be experienced at the earliest opportunity.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 1hr 59mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: May 18, 2020