Released: 16th January
Seen: 26th January
The very first Best Picture Oscar winner was the War film Wings, way back in 1928. Since then a grand total of 16 War movies have taken home the little gold statue for Best Picture. Considering only 91 of those statues have been handed out, for 16 of them to go to films about war is pretty big. War films can be epic or personal but they are usually very Oscar Baity, full of big dramatic performances that are fantastic to put on a reel while names are announced for big awards. This year’s big war film is 1917, currently, the most likely Best Picture winner (though I’ll have full thoughts on that in a few weeks) which recently took home the Best Film at the Golden Globes. My big worry, when I walked in, was that this was a film with a lot of style that would end up treading the same waters we’ve seen in dozens of other war movies, so imagine my surprise when this epic war drama turned out to live up to its impressive hype. That never happens.
1917 is deceptively simple in its plot. Two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are given a mission by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). Their mission is to go deep in enemy territory where a battalion of 1600 British troops is about to walk into a trap. If they make it, they can save 1600 lives but if they fail then it will be a massacre. We then follow them as they basically make a run for it, through No Man’s Land and enemy camps with the need to deliver the message. To compound this, one of those 1600 men is Lance Corporal Blake’s brother. That’s it, that’s the entire plot. There’s no twists, no betrayals, nothing but “Deliver the letter, the sooner the better” in the middle of a battlefield. This simple plot allows the movies real focus to take place, on ever-growing visual tension.
The film tells its story using that difficult trick of appearing to be one long continuous shot (OK technically two long continuous shots but the hard cut is fully justified) and that’s where a lot of my worry came in. A movie pretending to be one long shot is not easy even if you’re doing something simple like a drama, so to do it for something this big and sweeping had me concerned that it was just because they could. I love it when I’m wrong because turns out, this story needs to be told in one long take because that’s where 99% of the tension comes from. We spend the entire film just barely keeping up with the two Lance Corporals on their journey. We never cut ahead of them, never rush off to check just how close they are to the battalion they need to stop. For all we know they could have already missed them and as we see the sun going down in real-time, our panic rises. It puts us right there with them on this journey and every potential setback makes the tension rise ever higher. It’s constantly hammered into our heads that if these two fail then there’s going to be a slaughter and when they get close to complete and utter failure you’ll be sitting on the back of the chair with fear.
When they aren’t trying to make you grind your teeth down to stumps from the fear, the film is just beautiful. Considering the camera is pretty much always moving from the second the film begins there is some serious skill going on to pull off some of these shots. The lighting alone is miraculous, the way they effectively play with colour palettes when the two leads are in the most danger. There’s an entire shootout sequence that takes place in a burning village that’s a treat to watch. It’s all so perfectly planned and aids the story, elevating it above what it could’ve been had they just told this in a more standard way. The combination of the simple plot, the stylistic choice of a one-take movie and the lush cinematography are what makes this film something special.
The only thing about this film that pulled me out of it was its use of A list actors as landmarks, like the recognisable faces of Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Benedict Cumberbatch were there just so they could break up the story into smaller sections. The story itself is so intimate between the two leads that I almost wanted just a whole cast of no-name actors, we didn’t need these big names popping up to do one scene and leaving, but while they were mild distractions from the story we’re talking INCREDIBLY mild, like enough that I wanted to bring it up so you’re ready for the moment where you go “Hang on, what’s Dr Strange doing here?” but not enough that it actively makes the film worse.
1917 is impressive as hell on a technical level, using that to bolster its simple and effective story. It’ll have you sitting on the edge of your seat and praying to whatever god you’ve got that the main characters make it through OK. The style and substance meet perfectly in the middle and every minute of it just works. There’s a reason why you’ve heard people telling you to go see this one and why it’s sweeping awards ceremonies, it’s genuinely pretty goddamn great.