Two British soldiers during World War I must cross enemy lines to deliver a message that could potentially save thousands of their comrades’ lives in “1917,” a gripping and powerful war film starring George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman.
Directed and co-written by Oscar-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes (“American Beauty”), and based on his grandfather’s experiences during the war, this fully captivating war film offers audiences an uninterrupted cinematic experience that takes place in real time and is impressively shot in what seems like one continuous take. Following these two brave soldiers as they embark on a daunting mission and remaining with them continuously throughout their nerve-wracking ordeal, the script by Mendes and cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns completely immerses audiences in the soldiers’ perspective, and their life-altering and deeply emotional journey is one that audiences won’t soon forget. Featuring the kind of technical genius that makes the big screen experience essential, “1917” is highlighted by some of Oscar winning cinematographer Roger Deakins’ most mesmerizing work to date, as well as standout work by production designer Dennis Gassner, editor Lee Smith, and a stirring score by Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”). Add to the equation two indelible co-lead performances by the talented young actors at the story’s center and you’ve got a harrowingly realistic war film that commands attention from start to finish.
Set in 1917 France at the height of The Great War, the film centers on two soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are given a task by their General (Colin Firth) at the very outset: to cross enemy lines to warn some fellow soldiers of an impending German attack. Given the overall chaos of the war and the uncertainty as to the enemy’s location, Blake and Schofield know that their chances of surviving the mission are slim to none, but the message could save thousands of British soldiers, including Blake’s brother, so they stock up on supplies and set off on their bold journey.
If their mission seemed dangerous from the start, that feeling only multiplies as the pair traverse the trenches, encountering battle-scarred soldiers along the way, all of whom call them crazy for trying to cross through No Man’s Land, the mist-shrouded land in between the frontlines. As the two soldiers delve deeper into enemy territory, they encounter extreme peril that creates even more urgency to carry out their mission before it’s too late.
After helming two blockbuster James Bond films (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”), director Sam Mendes returns to much more personal storytelling, delivering a gripping war film whose emotional firepower is as strong as the realistic action scenes. Transforming his grandfather’s memories of being a messenger on the frontlines of the Great War into a eerily authentic and emotionally resonant brothers-in-arms tale, the script by Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns is as action-packed as it is dramatically satisfying. It’s also one of most realistic and immersive cinematic experiences of recent memory, thanks to the uninterrupted premise and the long takes that are cut together as though they were one continuous shot. Still, one take or not, the camerawork by Roger Deakins is hauntingly beautiful and sets the bar magnificently high for any future war films, as does the mind-blowingly detailed production design by Dennis Gassner (“Blade Runner 2049”).
“1917” is already impressive for its award-worthy behind-the-scenes work, but the film wouldn’t achieve its emotional heights without the brilliant performances by the talented young British actors at the story’s center, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman. Portraying the boyish Lance Corporal Blake, Dean-Charles Chapman’s performance provides the story’s urgency as his desperation to save his brother gives the story its emotional edge, and it’s quite an impressive acting feat, particularly for someone in their first leading role. As Lance Corporal Schofield, George MacKay gives an equally impressive turn that gains in emotional complexity as the danger intensifies and the nature of their mission grows in personal importance. And while this is essentially a two-hander, a host of memorable supporting actors pop up on the frontlines, from Mark Strong as a compassionate captain and Colin Firth as a distinguished General to Benedict Cumberbatch as the headstrong colonel to whom the soldiers must deliver the message.
The Great War gets a great war film with “1917.”
By Lucas Mirabella
Running Time: 119 minutes
Rated R for violence, some disturbing images, and language.