1917 Review. By Nick Boyd.
“1917,” a harrowing World War I movie, centers on two young British soldiers – Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are told they are to immediately seek out Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is planning an attack with his men on the Germans, believing that they are retreating.
The only problem is that this is a trap because the Germans are anticipating this move. Blake is eager to embark on the trek since his older brother is stationed with Colonel Mackenzie’s troops.
The editing structure of the film is such that it appears to come off as one continuous take, as the viewer is right there with these young soldiers from first frame to last, giving us an up-close and intimate look through their perilous journey. This particular filming technique was most recently featured in the Best Picture Oscar winning “Birdman.”
Director Sam Mendes makes sure that the key characters do not get lost in the narrative and that we deeply care and are invested in their plight. Both MacKay and Chapman give heartfelt, empathetic performances, particularly MacKay in the latter stages. The comrades’ loyalty to each other is able to ring true.
What “1917” may remind some of is Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old,” which shows actual footage of British soldiers engaged in trench warfare and ordinary military life. Both pictures employ techniques to immerse the viewer in what it must have been like to experience the “Great War” as a soldier.
To its credit, “1917” does not shy away from exploring moral quandaries present in wartime. An example comes when a German pilot’s plane crash lands near the two young soldiers and they have to decide what to do. Blake wants to give the soldier water and assist him, while Schofield wants nothing to do with him. This moral difference leads to a bitter conclusion.
Well into the film, when Schofield late at night finds himself hiding in a barn, he encounters a young French woman with a newborn baby. While this is a tender scene, it also was lacking in a narrative sense. It did not make sense why Schofield would have spent as much time as he did with this woman and the baby, considering the time-sensitive mission at hand.
The film is beautifully shot and is exceedingly effective on a visceral level, showing the horrors of war and the bravery that occurs.
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