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Review: 1917

December 27, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Despite the fact that it takes place over a hundred years ago, 1917 is a World War I drama that has an immediacy to it, heightened by the fact that the film is presented entirely in the form of one single take, shot with stunning dynamism by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins.

This approach not only stuns on a technical level, but also works from a dramatic standpoint to put us right on the ground and in the trenches with these men. The result is an immersive piece of filmmaking that is pulled off very well by director Sam Mendes, who co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and based the story on his grandfather’s experiences in the First World War.

The story unfolds over a single day and follows two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are stationed on the edge of No Man’s Land in northern France. They are given orders by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver a message calling off an attack the next morning that will needlessly threaten the lives of roughly sixteen hundred soldiers, including Blake’s own brother (Richard Madden), but to do so they must risk their own lives by venturing far across enemy lines.

First and foremost, 1917 is an impressive technical achievement. The camerawork is simply incredible throughout, and Deakins is coming right for that second Oscar, having finally won his first trophy two years ago for Blade Runner 2049 after many nominations. There were multiple moments where I was left wondering exactly how he got a specific shot or was able to keep the camera running for so long without stopping. While there are clearly a few cuts throughout the roughly two hour running time, which are all seamlessly hidden, there are also long stretches of the film with no cuts at all.

In any given sequence, Deakins shifts between wide shots, mediums and closeups, utilizing a mix of dollies, cranes and even handheld steadicams to keep the camera rolling as he follows the actors across a range of locations, giving the film a thrilling, real time feel. This approach also required Deakins to shoot with natural light, while having to contend with special effects such as gunfire, explosions, and even a dogfight in the sky at one point. The visuals are matched by great sound design, and a brilliant musical score by Thomas Newman.

The film is carried by a pair of physically and emotionally demanding performances by MacKay and Chapman, who do an excellent job of keeping up with the demands of the long takes, which require them to shift between a variety of emotions with the camera continuously rolling. These two actors are tasked with carrying the entirety of the film on their shoulders, and they are compelling to watch. Along with the aforementioned Firth and Madden, the ensemble cast is rounded out by appearances from fellow British actors Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch. Despite the fact that these four recognizable actors each only appear briefly, they all make the most of their single scenes in the film.

While the plot itself is fairly straight forward, there is a filmmaking prowess to 1917 that simply can’t be denied. The characters are in constant danger, and the brilliantly pulled off single take illusion ensures that we as an audience are kept in suspense throughout. At its best, 1917 offers an exciting example of images, sound, music and performances all coming together in a way that adds up to a unique cinema experience, and one that I look forward to experiencing again in IMAX.

1917 is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto, and will be expanding to more theatres on January 10th.

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