It won all the BAFTAs. Best film? Yes. Best director? Yes. Outstanding British film? Yes. And did it live up to its critical acclaim? Absolutely – it did it in tank-loads. Mendes’ 1917 brings the terror of World War One into this decade with a film that has all the horror and suspense of Krasinski’s ‘A Quiet Place’, but with the added fact that it is based on a true story, a fact that sticks with cinema-goers long after the movie ends.
The film is based on Operation Alberich, when the German forces strategically retreated to the Hindenburg Line in 1917. Following Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Thomas Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) in a ‘man on a mission’ story, we see their struggle in delivering a message to call off a British attack to stop them from falling into a German trap, potentially saving 1600 lives. And, as if the stakes were not high enough, this includes Blake’s own brother. Although the plot of the movie is relatively simple- one of the greatest triumphs is the enduring suspense established from the outset that remained with the audience until the credits roll.
One of the ways the tension is built during the opening of this movie is the cinematography of Roger Deakins. The movie was filmed in such a way so as to look like one continuous shot – no cutaways – but a continuous flow of action right from beginning to end. This created the sense of a point of view, as the audience are thrown into the experience of Tom and Will. It felt so much more personal, as if the audience were, in some way, part of the mission with the two soldiers. From the outset when the cameras were continuously following the two men down the never-ending trenches, I truly felt like I had been thrown into their consciousness, experiencing the horrors with them, feeling the danger alongside them, and enduring the emotion as their comrade. By focusing on the individual experience of just two soldiers, Mendes’ film allowed the audience to see the effects of war from a more personalised perspective, enhancing the sense of empathy running throughout.
What also enhanced the enduring tension was the perfect balance between silence, music and jump scares. The musical score of Newman instantaneously threw the audience into the action. With the low humming building to a rhythmical beat as the soldiers marched down the trench, audience members could not but help grabbing onto the side of their luxury recliner seats, as the sense of oncoming danger built. Newman’s soundtrack created a sense of dread for what was going to happen next, never allowing a moment of calm until the very end. This was complemented by the repeated moments of silence before the ear-rupturing sound of a single gunshot. Combined with the single shot cinematography, these jump scares truly had the audience feeling the terror alongside the characters – so much so that every last audience member stopped munching on their popcorn or nachos in order to feel the heightened horror created by the moments of stillness.
But this enduring tension would not have been possible without the performances of MacKay and Chapman. Both actors delivered convincing performances in their roles as Will and Tom, demonstrating accomplished rapport from the outset. The emotion was perfectly balanced with tension, demonstrated by MacKay’s Will in his resistance to the mission, urgency from the various action sequences, and a sustained sense of bathos in moments of heightened emotion. Both actors’ depiction of their characters were nuanced, delving into their characters’ psychology and backstory, rather than presenting the audience with shallow depictions of the dutiful soldier on a mission. I truly felt that I understood their motivations, particularly the character development of MacKay’s Will in his transformation from resistance to carrying out the mission. Credit must also be given to Chapman in his role as a supporting actor. It is refreshing to see the diverse range from Chapman as a performer, going from the innocent King Tommen we see in Game of Thrones, to a British soldier fighting in the first world war – I look forward to seeing more of his variety as a performer in future roles.
Overall, I found the movie thoroughly moving. I must admit, war films have never been my ‘go to’ (I for one love a good Rom-Com which is by far the furthest you can get). But I must say, I was truly overwhelmed by 1917. Mendes’ latest blockbuster hit provided audiences with the perfect balance of emotion, horror and suspense. Ranging from the gruesome shots of rotting flesh, rats and blood, to the bathos created by the soldiers talking about their lives back home – this movie truly transported me into the lives of two soldiers in the Great War. The movie makes audience members reflect on the horrors that mankind is capable of, something that will stick with me for a long time, and make me ever grateful to the soldiers that served and continue to serve. ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them’.
Featured image by Universal. Available on IMDb under Creative Commons 2.0 license.