I know the phrase “This is the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan” is going around a lot. But when it comes to ‘1917’, it’s true.
Starring George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Richard Madden, ‘1917’ is a World War One epic from acclaimed filmmaker Sam Mendes.
Set in WWI, it follows two young British soldiers who are given a seemingly impossible task of delivering a message deep behind enemy lines to stop 1600 allies walking into a deadly trap.
Throughout 2019, ‘1917’ became one of my most anticipated releases for the remainder of the year. But due to being an Australian, myself and many others had to wait until the start of 2020 for this movie. I can tell you right now that ‘1917’ was well worth the wait!
Sam Mendes has made what is my favourite movie in his excellent filmography so far. I remember loving Mendes after I first watched ‘American Beauty’ back in 2012. Then with ‘Skyfall’, ‘Jarhead’, ‘Road to Perdition’, and the opening sequence of ‘Spectre’, I am always excited for anything he touches. As I just mentioned, ‘1917’ is my favourite thing he has made yet as it’s one of the most immersive and intense film experiences I’ve ever had!
Now, I’m sure you all want to know about one thing first up and that, of course, is what I think of the much talked about cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins. As you may have heard, the whole movie looks like it’s filmed in one take. This is similar in style to films such as ‘Birdman’, and for ‘1917’, it led to one of the most immersive movies I’ve ever seen. As a person who has seen so many movies with long takes, I can usually tell when an edit happens between one shot and another. For ‘1917’ I only noticed a couple of edits. The other edits were seamless, and I was blown away by the mixture of fantastic cinematography and editing. Deakins has been my favourite director of photography for about a decade now, and this is one of his greatest efforts yet.
One thing that usually happens when films take the “one-shot” approach is that it can feel lazy at times, with a focus on “over-the-shoulder” angles and such. But here, we get a great mixture of simple and complicated shots that continued to blow me away over the two-hour runtime. One sequence that involves a half-destroyed village and a window is one of my favourite shots of all time. The way it happens is cinematography at its finest, and I’m sure those of you who don’t really take in interest in it will be blown away by its magnificence. Roger Deakins has outdone himself yet again, and it’s one of the best aspects of the film.
Speaking of the best aspects, the production design is phenomenal. Within the first few minutes, you feel like you’re a soldier in WWI. You feel like you’re there in the trenches and countryside of Northern France. According to the production, over 5,200 feet of trenches were dug for the film. When you look it like that, this is incredibly impressive and essential for the film. Since it’s all in “one-shot,” they had to have a good production for it to work, and the trenches are proof of how much effort they put in. The trenches feel lived in, and the devastation of the land where battles have taken place (particularly no man’s land) looks straight out of a documentary. This is some of the best production design in a war movie, and the cinematography makes it even more impressive.
Now, I should talk about the performances, which are all fantastic. The two leads, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are truly remarkable here. Their chemistry alone makes it feel like you’re watching two friends who’ve known each other for at least a year or more. As we follow them throughout the film, the script from Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns and their performances flesh them out just enough for the viewers to get emotionally attached to them.
George MacKay, in particular, is the star of the show. The way he conveys his thoughts through body language is incredible. There are decent sections of the film where he doesn’t speak, and you watch him tackle with each increasingly difficult task presented to him and Chapman, which leads to one of the best performances I’ve seen in the last year. Just saying that has made me realise how many fantastic performances came out of 2019. Dean-Charles Chapman is just as good in this regard, as with each difficult situation he comes across, you start to see other sides of his character, which I didn’t expect to see. These two are amazing, and they carry the film since you see either one of them for the entire run-time.
The other performances (or, more like lengthened cameos) from Colin Firth to Mark Strong are all fantastic. The cast is excellent, and they all give incredible performances, even if most of them are only on-screen for a few minutes.
Another positive I should mention is the score from Thomas Newman. The way he uses brass and string instruments, lead to some of the most epic pieces of music used in the genre. The piece ‘The Night Window’ is my favourite of the score, due to the almost dreamlike sense of it for the first half, and then it builds into an epic string centred piece which, along with the cinematography of the scene, blew me away. A fantastic score, and definitely one of my favourites from 2019.
Overall, ‘1917’ is a thrilling and intense war epic like no other! Sam Mendes has crafted one of the most realistic portrayals of life as a soldier in WWI, and it’s his most beautiful film yet. With phenomenal cinematography from Roger Deakins, incredible performances, and some of the most impressive production design I’ve seen in years, ‘1917’ is the best war movie since ‘Saving Private Ryan’, and it will go down as a classic of the genre! If you are thinking of waiting until it’s out of cinemas to watch it, do yourself a favour and see it on the biggest screen possible. This is the definition of a cinematic epic!