Directed by: Sam Mendes
Written by: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Released: January 9, 2020
Grade: A-


When first sent the script for Sam Mendes’ new film, cinematographer Roger Deakins admitted to being shocked.  They’d worked together on a number of challenging projects (Skyfall, Revolutionary Road, Jarhead) but 1917 would require an unprecedented level of thought and planning.  The vision was to create a World War I movie, complete with battle sequences, that looks like it’s been shot in a single continuous take with no edits.

Such real-time movies have been created before (the Oscar winning Birdman springs to mind) but this takes that concept to a new level in that it’s shot almost entirely outside, the characters are continually moving, and it involves a large number of elaborate, manmade sets.  On seeing some of the camera angles, such as a smooth-moving close up of a soldier’s feet as they slide through mud, I kept thinking to myself - “how the hell did they shoot that?”

For this reason, the story behind the camera is as interesting as that in front of it.  Each continuous shot (running up to about 9 minutes) had to be meticulously choreographed and rehearsed.  The camera needed to be moved seamlessly from crane to hand to vehicle to keep pace with the fast-moving actors.  The elements were a factor with the crew required to wait for the right level of cloud cover to ensure consistency of lighting from scene-to-scene.  It’s rare I say this but the “making of” videos on YouTube are compulsory viewing (once you’ve seen the film of course).

The narrative suits the technique.  1917 follows two British soldiers asked to go on a perilous mission.  Their job is to hike from an open-air trench in northern France, navigate their way several kilometres through German occupied territory, and deliver news of a pending attack to allied soldiers on the front line.  1,600 lives are in jeopardy if they fail.  The lead performances from George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Game of Thrones) are outstanding given they are required to emote for lengthy periods without the director yelling “cut”.

Inspired by stories from his late grandfather, who was a messenger in the British Army during World War I, 1917 is a tense, immersive filmgoing experience.  We’re placed in the shoes of these two characters and we follow every step and every word as part of their journey.  There are fleeting moments where they can relax and make small talk but for the most part, they must deal with the realisation that their lives could end at any moment.  They will need to rely on a combination of smarts and luck.

The script is “stagey” and romanticised in places.  As an example, there’s a scene involving singing soldiers where it’s hard to reconcile the lack of awareness and decision making.  There’s a contradictory sequence moments later where a soldier wastes a few seconds thinking about whether he could take a different path to save a few seconds. 

Qualms aside, this is still a powerful film that makes effective use of visuals, sound and music.  Deakins seems a shoe-in to win the Oscar for best cinematography (he previously won for Blade Runner 2049) but it’d be great to see iconic composer Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption) break his losing streak given he’s been nominated 14 times previously without success.  Fingers crossed.