Movie Review: 1917

At the Golden Globe awards ceremony the other day, perhaps no one was more surprised by 1917’s two big wins (Best Picture – Drama and Best Director) than the film’s writer-director Sam Mendes (SPECTRE; SKYFALL). Sure, the film has ended up on many critics’ Top 10 lists but it was competing against other awards-worthy films like JOKER, THE IRISHMAN and ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. Will the awards momentum take it to Oscars glory in February? It first has to compete for the BAFTAs. The film received nine nominations yesterday and it’s safe to assume that it will take home more than a few of those awards too.

Based in part on Mendes’ own grandfather’s war experiences, 1917 tells the story of a do-or-die mission involving two young British soldiers – Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, BLINDED BY THE LIGHT; MAN UP; TV’s GOT) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) – who are tasked by their general (played by Colin Firth, MARY POPPINS RETURNS; the MAMMA MIA! films; the BRIDGET JONES trilogy; DEVIL’S KNOT) with crossing no man’s land to deliver a message to the general leading the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, THE CURRENT WAR; the AVENGERS franchise; THE IMITATION GAME; AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY). Their success may just change the fortunes of the war. Though the task is extremely dangerous, Blake is highly motivated as his brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake (Richard Madden, ROCKETMAN, TV’s BODYGUARD and GOT), is with the Devons and the older brother will be leading his unit of soldiers to what will be a certain death unless he and Schofield get there first. For the next 24 hours, the young men face a barrage of obstacles, and physical and psychological challenges as they make their way to their comrades.

Ever since its premiere on Xmas Day, the Internet has been all abuzz discussing the film’s seemingly one continuous take (or two, depending on if you count the few seconds when the image goes black as a hard cut). Though it’s really some crafty editing made to look like it’s been shot in one go, Oscar® award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins’ (BLADE RUNNER 2049) work here is still very impressive. His camerawork puts audiences right in the trenches with the young men, experiencing, if only in a small way, the chaos, claustrophobia and even the thrill that soldiers must have felt back then. The story plays out much like a video game with the film’s two heroes engaging in increasingly complex scenarios involving rats, rotting corpses, booby traps, stray German soldiers (who, it seems, can’t hit the side of a barn with a howitzer), a raging river and more as they get closer to their destination. While it makes for armrest-clutching viewing at the time, post-game… I mean, post-movie reflection reveals a rather thin plot that’s not too different from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN except here there are two soldiers instead of a team and Private Ryan has been replaced by Lieutenant Blake.

If you can get past the idea that the sadistic Tommen Baratheon could now be a sympathetic soldier, you will appreciate Chapman’s performance here. But it’s really MacKay, in his biggest role to date, who is the film’s star. He becomes the gamers’, I mean, the audience’s surrogate, taking us along with him on his perilous journey. In addition to Firth, Cumberbatch and Madden, Mark Strong (STOCKHOLM; SHAZAM!; THE IMITATION GAME), and Andrew Scott (SPECTRE; JIMMY’S HALL; TV’s FLEABAG) also pop up to offer exposition and support to the young men.

While 1917 will no doubt pick up a few more awards before the season ends, it will probably be remembered more for its technical achievement rather than for anything else. Certainly go see it – on a very large screen – but don’t expect to come away with any deep insight into the insanity of war or the camaraderie of the soldiers who fought in them.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, January 10th, 8:30 am HK time!

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