Friday, 10 January 2020

"1917" The Movie - A Review Of The 2020 Sam Mendes World War One Film...

"...Went To Sea In A Sieve..." 

"1917" - THE MOVIE
A Review of The Movie by Sam Mendes...

It's Friday 10 January 2020, opening night for 1917 The Movie in the UK and hot on the heels of its surprise win at The Golden Globes as Best Picture only a few days ago. Well, having been glued to my seat, heart in my mouth and jaw dropped unceremoniously to the sticky floor of Westgate On Sea's lovely Carlton Cinema - it will come as no surprise to me at all when it wins at least 4 Oscars come awards season - Best Movie and Direction for Sam Mendes, Best Cinematography for Roger Deakins (and about bloody time too) and Best Score (yet again) for Thomas Newman.

Visually and sonically part Revenant, part Saving Private Ryan with large dollops of Dunkirk's sheer otherworldliness thrown in - "1917" is seriously visceral stuff. Even now when I think about the opening single tracking shot that has to have lasted maybe as much as 20 minutes without a cut - had any single thing gone wrong - the whole set up would have been kaput (the action all takes place on 6 April 1917 near The Western Front). There are walks through miles of trenches with every horrible conceivable sight - hundreds and hundreds of extras all having to hit their mark on time (a beautifully understated Colin Firth and a nerve-frazzled cigarette-smoking Andrew Scott do their big name parts justice as various sides of the military brass).

But it’s the sequence that follows that utterly amazes as the two lads are tasked with finding a misguided 2nd Battalion's gung-ho Colonel to avert a slaughter of huge proportions by the supposedly retreating Hun – and it begins by finding a gap where they can go over the top. I can't even imagine how long it took to set up these miles of craters and mud and dirty water and rotten horse corpse and barbed wire and flies and the endless twisted mutilated bodies of men - but it stays with you long after the two try to navigate no man's land without being shot or blasted to oblivion.

The lion's share of the movie focuses almost exclusively on the two young lads burdened with a suicide mission that must succeed or so many will perish amongst them an older brother - George MacKay and Dean Charles-Chapman magnificent in their full-frontal roles as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake. 

Having said that, if I was to nitpick - while the horrible relentlessness of World War I's trench/town conditions are portrayed with truly amazing set pieces - the sheer sickening waste of life seems somehow sidelined at times. I often feel like a convenient re-writing of history takes place with the First World War - swap upper class arrogance for ordinary-man heroism and the puppet masters of these completely avoidable massacres can divert responsibility and hide their shame. It's like the hero element is all when of course we now know from so many first-hand accounts that ordinary soldiers were left with only mental and physical waste, sadness, faith destruction and rage at the landed aristocracy back in London who put them and their buddies there in the first place to die with such callous ease for King and Country. You would also have to agree with some critics that the technical can and does overwhelm the emotional a little too much at times and I think it's only this that stops "1917" The Movie from reaching true greatness (I'd still rate it as a five-star barnstormer nonetheless). Richard Madden, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch also all make brief but hugely impressive appearances - men of war – just some more in touch with the humane than others.

Two huge elements in the film’s swallow-you-up envelopment are Roger Deakins stunning cinematography that goes up and down from muddy boot to bloodied uniform - somehow drawing you into their Hell in a new way that makes it all feel so horribly real - and Thomas Newman's score that ups the thump-pulse one minute then tugs on the heartstrings the next – and always just when you think no more emotion can be wrenched from a scene (he manages this time and time again even amidst the horror).

The other unspoken hero is the way Mendes has shot the film - always feeling like you're on their shoulders - behind them - beside them - in front of them. The choreography is astounding at times too - the camera casually observing the mundane – grunt soldiers on a truck talking about the dead cows in the fields they pass - and then terrifying in equally brilliant measure – Lance Corporal Schofield head-injured as he is sucked along in the current of a river where branches, rocks and dead bodies batter against him in the truly gross detritus of war. There's a chance night-time encounter with a beleaguered mother and infant entrenched in a French ruin where he recites Edward Lear's poem The Jumblies to calm the milk-starved baby and the words don't just do the soothing trick but somehow also describe the sheer stupidity and hubris of the war to end all wars. There are buddy-buddy talks as they walk with their rifles and bayonets at the ready - weapons that seem pitiful in the face of the merciless war machine facing them in every pasture - chatting one minute in beautiful cherry-blossom orchards and then dashing the next through collapsing wood and dust in horror dugouts where suffocation is only seconds away unless you can summon up the will to live and move that tired body and pummelled mind. 

"1917" is a brilliant film and it seems that all of Mendes work to date has been leading up to this. There is also a genuine Spielberg-like sense throughout of a master of his craft finally at work on something that really matters to him - aided by a cast, crew and technical know-how that can deliver such a mind-blowing one-continuous-shot vision (the movie is dedicated to his uncle Alfred and his stories handed down to Sam as a child). 

Oscar glory surely beckons for "1917" in the award ceremonies held 9 February 2020 - and when the BLU RAY (especially the 4K variant) is released later in the year - it's on my shopping list pretty damn quick. "Well done lad..." one of the soldiers says to Lance Corporal Schofield knowing what he's been through. Amen to that and huge congrats to everyone involved...

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