Sam Mendes’ war drama feels refreshed by its cinematography, once the dizziness wears off.
Much has been made of the central conceit of the World War 1 drama, 1917. Director Sam Mendes orchestrates his film such that it appears to be one, 2-hour long continuous shot, like 2014’s similarly Oscar nominated Birdman. The barbed wire cuts both way with the trick: some critics laud its visual audacity; other critics feel it robs the piece of the flexibility.
Both lines of thought have merit, but I ultimately believe that Mendes is smart enough to turn his weaknesses into strengths. 1917 offers viewers something novel, and while it doesn’t always find the mark, it always looks fresh.
Two young soldiers serving in World War 1 receive a heavy burden. Tasked with delivering vital information to the front, they must cross miles of recently evacuated German territory. If they fail, allied forces will march into a trap. The live of 1600 men, including the brother of one of the soldiers, rests on them making a daring trek in just one day.
The appearance of one, continuous take provides advantages and hurdles to overcome. In the early film, I did not care for it. As we watch Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) move through the trenches, the bob of the camera like a silent third companion can become unsettling. The constant proximity causes claustrophobia – which I understand Mendes intended but is no more pleasant for being intentional. It also becomes awkward when people shuffle upstage and downstage to accomplish what a quick match cut effects effortlessly. On the whole, it drew me out of the early proceedings because it calls such attention to itself.
Once on the front, the trick becomes much more integral, and integrated. The camera moves more freely, getting close or far, taking high or low angle shots. Several 360 degree shots are impressive and help to ground you in the scene. There is a nighttime scene in the second half which is so powerfully composed, you get a sense Mendes envisioned it and then worked backwards from the need to film it.
The inability to use familiar camera techniques such as match cuts can distance you from the characters. While you do often feel like a silent companion, you don’t get many of the tricks that create psychological intimacy with the subject. Mendes does use perspective and distance to help make up for what is lost. He also relies on expression and telling details to help create emotional attachment to the subjects. Once again, it can work to varying degrees depending on the scene. Like above, I found it mostly effective, and when ineffective, I could see why.
1917 leans on several key strengths to pull everything together. The first is fantastic character work. George MacKay is brilliant and engaging in a manner which feels unaffected. Much like his character in Captain Fantastic, he utilizes subtle expressions to communicate deep emotion. I was indifferent to Chapman’s performance, but several smaller roles also get much accomplished with restrained performances.
Second, the sound work in 1917 really impresses. The orchestration flows in and out of the piece deftly, mixing with the ambient sounds of the countryside and the explosive percussions of warfare. As soon as our pair leave the trenches, the sound opens up into a mesmerizing whole that never overplays itself but is consistently great.
Lastly, several set-pieces really let the conceit of the single take grab you. Mendes blocks out his scenes well, creating tableaus that are works of art. The effects, props, and setting also work in concert to create beautiful sequences.
1917 synthesizes its strengths and flaws into a coherent whole impressively. After a rough start getting acclimated, it really finds its footing. Rather than an artistic gimmick, the simulated single take allows the film to become something totally unique. While we see many familiar elements to period war films, fresh eyes invigorate them.
With a strong cast, gorgeous visuals, and fantastic sound work, the film keeps you engrossed. A few bald patches in the pacing call attention to the artificial compression of the story’s timeline, but pass quickly thanks to engaging set-pieces. Layers of meaning and ideas hide under the surface in 1917, but like the characters become more emotionally felt than intellectually expounded. While much of the dramatic story’s impact comes from surprise, the depth of the artistic constructs make a second viewing a welcomed experience.