1917 (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Sam Mendes, UK/US, 2019, 119 mins, in English/French/German

Cast:  George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Claire Duburcq,

Review by Carol Allen


Sam Mendes’ First World War movie focuses on two men and one mission. 

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George McKay) are sent on a vital mission to the front line, where the British troops, believing that the Germans have retreated, are about to embark on a big push.  But reconnaissance has disclosed that it is in fact a trap in which the men of the advancing division will face certain death.

One of those men is Blake’s elder brother, which is why General Erinmore (Colin Firth) has cynically selected him to carry a message through no-man’s land to call off the proposed advance.   All other communication has broken down and it is a race against time.  A two hour race in fact.

Because, like a theatre piece, the action of the story is played in real time and appears, through clever camera work and editing and extensive rehearsal of long takes, to be filmed in one continuous shot.  The effect is one of immediacy – we are literally with the two young heroes every step of the way – no cutaways, no visual relief from what they are experiencing.

And that experience is gruelling.  The sordid claustrophobia of the trenches.  The devastation of no-man’s land – dead bodies of men and animals, rats, tree stumps poking up from the mud in a landscape destroyed by the retreating Germans.  And the moments of danger when Schofield and Blake encounter pockets of the enemy.  All elements we have seen before.   But that sense of immediacy makes them freshly terrifying and disturbing.

The concentration is all the time on the two young men, what they see, what they experience. They are heartbreakingly courageous and vulnerable, heartbreakingly young.

In the course of their journey they encounter other, older and more experienced officers – effective cameos from older and more experienced actors, such as Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Daniel Mays and Richard Madden.

There is only one female role in the film – Claire Duburq in her first film role as a terrified young French woman hiding out with her baby in the ruins of her war destroyed village.

Carol Allen

Author: Carol Allen

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