Movie review: '1917' is technically impressive but the story leaves you wanting

Fred Hawson

Posted at Feb 06 2020 11:47 AM

Movie review: '1917' is technically impressive but the story leaves you wanting 1
A scene from '1917.' Handout

It is April of 1917 in the trenches of the British troops in Northern France during the First World War. Two young soldiers, Schofield and Blake, were given a mission to hand-deliver an important intelligence letter across enemy lines to the commander of another British battalion to call off their planned attack on a German camp because they were prepared to ambush them. Blake was specially wired for this mission despite its dangers because his brother Joseph was in that other battalion. 

From the very first scene to the last, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins took us along for what looked like one single take of continuous action as the camera followed Schofield and Blake in what seemed to be real time. 

It was an incredible technical achievement how they did this fluid illusion as the camera followed the two soldiers and show us their surroundings from all aspects. This becomes even more remarkable when they incorporate complex scenes, like a plane crash or a battle charge or even a slowly dying soldier, all integrated perfectly in time with the flow.

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Following a mission real-time also meant having screen time spent on simply walking and chatting through trenches and fields, which others may find tedious. However, throughout this long walk of the two soldiers, it was the musical score of Thomas Newman that brought color to what may seem like simple images and action on the screen. The ever-changing tempo of the music created an atmosphere of tension and impending peril, and was very much a significant aspect of the entire movie-viewing experience for this film. The detailed art direction, costumes and makeup complete the harrowing picture.

Playing the two soldiers whose lead we followed were George MacKay as Lance Corporal Will Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman as Lance Corporal Tom Blake. I only knew Chapman as Tommen Baratheon from the "Game of Thrones." I did not recognize MacKaye even if he had a longer career behind him, but this was his biggest breakthrough role internationally in a most challenging role. 

Along their way, there were cameos from more prominent British actors playing other soldiers they encounter, like Mark Strong (as Capt. Smith), Colin Firth (as Gen. Erinmore) and Benedict Cumberbatch (as Col Mackenzie). 

With a broad encompassing title like "1917" and all the awards buzz that surrounded it after it premiered, I was expecting one major epic war adventure. However, it turned out that the adventure we were going to follow for the next two hours was of a much smaller scale -- following the mission of two lance corporals to deliver a vital letter. 

While the mission was indeed distressing and fraught with unexpected episodes of danger, I will not deny that I was a little surprised by the thinness of the story being told. 

However, Sam Mendes more than compensated for this with his incredible camera techniques. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."