1917 (2020)

  • Release Date: 10/01/2020
  • Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George Mackay, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden
  • Director: Sam Mendes

On April 6th, 1917 two Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay) are dispatched by their commanding officer, General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a critical message to the 2nd Devons regiment, led by Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) behind German frontlines. The message contained a direct order to stop their planned attack that was intended to take place the following day. The Germans, as was learned, were anticipating the attack and were well prepared to annihilate the Devons. Thus, on the actions of Blake and Schofield, the future of the 1600 men of Devons Regiment depended. 1917 is about what happens in the course of the next few hours as the two men undertake the most perilous mission of their lives.

1917 is a technical marvel. The film is presented in a manner that makes it feel like one continuous take with a lone break in the middle of the 2 hours runtime. This in cinematic terms is referred to as a “oner”. There are many examples of “oner” with the most recent being the 2014 multiple Oscar winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). In a war film, the unbroken take or atleast the illusion of it means a never felt before involvement for the viewers in the proceedings. When the shot is unbroken, you are practically glued to it over an hour apiece of the runtime as the two characters walk through different settings in bursts of 10-15 minutes passages dealing with different challenges that are as nerve-wracking as they are believable. Each of these passages then leads to the next setting which has its own beauty and dangers.

If one looks closely enough, one can find the edits but when you are watching the film, it is the last thing on your mind. The exhilarating story, immersive screenplay, and engrossing performances doesn’t let you focus anywhere else. The first shot of the film introduces us to Blake and Schofield who are cooling their heels in the countryside when they are summoned by the General. Once they are briefed about their mission, they don’t have a single second to lose as they are on the clock right away. Blake has an elder brother who is a lieutenant in the 2nd Devons and hence for him the stakes are higher than anyone else. Schofield is not convinced that the Germans, right in front of their lines, are gone and that they can practically walk through the frontlines without being killed. He repeatedly urges Blake to re-consider but Blake pays no heed to him as all he can think of is stopping the attack and saving his brother.

The film flawlessly transitions from one setup to another and each of the setups brings with it a new set of terrifying challenges that the men must overcome. For example, as they climb over their lines, they encounter their own barb-wires that they cross but not without one of them getting injured. The same person then has the injured hand thrust into the rotting corpse of a fallen German soldier who has become rat-food. All I could think of in this scene was if the soldier had just taken his first step towards contracting plague. George Mackay’s expression to this tiny bit is in strong keeping with the feel of the situation. I could see my fear resonate in the man’s look at Dean-Charles Chapman who was instrumental in giving him the jolt that led to hand-dip. A little later, they find themselves in a German trench that is vacant but is booby-trapped with mines. Thank God! They notice the tripwire but wait! There are rats everywhere and they might just eventually trip it or will they do it immediately. This is the kind of tension that the entire screenplay presents you with. Add to that the fact that it is all happening without any cuts and the tension and involvement of the viewer just quadruples.

Dean-Charles Chapman played Tommen Baratheon in the Game of Thrones. He is immensely likable as someone who is literally rushing through the miles between him and his brother knowing full well the dangers on the path. Even amid all that madness, he doesn’t forget his humanity which is beautifully depicted in a poignant scene. He not only looks the part but is completely believable at every level. George Mackay, on the other hand, is a skeptic. He tries his best to convince Chapman to undertake the walk after sunset but when he finally fails to do so, he is the one to climb out of the trench first. It would be wrong to say that he is fearless but even in the face of all his fears, he still doesn’t lose all that is best in him. After a turning point, he transforms into someone hell-bent on completing the mission more than anything else. Mackay brings out with poignancy every nuance that his character needed to and he feels extremely apt at it.

There are a few cameos by stalwarts like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Mark Strong that leaves a lasting impression. Colin Firth sets the ball rolling with the General turn that sets the mood for what is about to come. We see him only in a dimly lit barrack but his dramatics make their way to us and literally crawl under our skin. Mark Strong and his unmistakable voice make its first appearance when Mckay finds himself in the middle of a major tragedy. We don’t see him for a while and only hear his words and even at that, I felt the warmth and concern that he was offering Mckay. His charm is indelible and even in that minuscule role, he is affecting. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a character that we hear about from the very first scene and he is the most important character in the whole film as it is on his actions that the lives of 1600 men depend. It is needless to say that he totally nails the part and is charming in the few minutes that he has on-screen. Richard Madden played Rob Stark in Game of Thrones and here he plays the elder brother of Chapman who Played Tommen Baratheon. Apart from the bizarre predicament that this casting choice offers to the fans of Game of Thrones, he is terrific as the elder Blake. I loved his wonderfully underplayed reactions in an emotional bit.

This review wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t credit the cinematography, editing and background score (Roger Deakins, Lee Smith, Thomas Newman). I have a strong hunch that Roger Deakins might just end up with his second Oscar this year for the phenomenal work that he has done here. Just to think of the logistical challenges that he might have faced makes me respect his achievements even more. Lee Smith’s editing or the lack of it is nothing short of brilliant. If you can’t see the cuts in a 2-hour long film means the editor must have been a wizard. The film cuts about every 5 minutes but that is something that will take you multiple viewings to figure out. Thomas Newman’s score is hauntingly melancholic and beautiful. It doesn’t tell you how to feel. It only accentuates the way you are feeling. Sam Mendes, who also co-wrote this film, did a flawless job directing. There is nothing about his direction that I can criticize or scrutiny.

1917 is one of the best films of the year. Apart from being a technical marvel, it sets out to tell a story that is bound to inspire and enlighten many. Add to that its technicalities and the sheer beauty of the visual palette that Deakins creates for us and we have a film that cannot be missed at any cost.

Rating: 4.5/5 (4.5 out of 5 Stars)        

 

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