The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - 1917 | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - 1917

In WWI France, two young soldiers are entrusted with delivering a message to call off a suicidal attack.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Mark Strong

1917 poster

When Hitchcock attempted to create the illusion that his 1948 thriller Rope had been shot in a single take, he was forced to disguise cuts every 10 minutes, as that's how long a reel of film lasted. In today's digital filmmaking era no such limitations apply, which is why long takes and 'single take' movies are growing increasingly popular. Give a filmmaker too much...well, rope and they can hang themselves, with many long take sequences and single take movies feeling gimmicky at best, a waste of the powerful tool of editing at worst. The best of the recent crop of single take movies is the German thriller Victoria, which uses the format to immerse us in the head of its titular heroine, who is swept along on an increasingly dangerous adventure that plays out in real-time as dawn breaks on Berlin.

Working with perhaps our greatest working cinematographer, Roger Deakins, director Sam Mendes has pulled off a single take movie (well, two takes to be precise) with 1917 that justifies its use of the technique. Of course, given the scale of storytelling, it's really several takes sewn together through invisible digital effects, a truly startling achievement in pulling the wool over the viewer's eyes. A criticism of action movies is that they can often feel like we're watching someone else play a video game. 1917 on the other hand feels like we're in the game.

1917 review

It's a spring day in Northern France and a pair of young British Lance Corporals - Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean Charles-Chapman) - are lazing by a tree when their presence is requested by General Erinmore (Colin Firth). The general charges the young men with delivering a message to a nearby battalion, instructing them to call off the dawn raid they had planned, as the Germans have redeployed their troops in order to create a trap that will result in a massacre. Erinmore assures them that as the Germans have pulled out of their trenches, they won't meet any resistance along the way.

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Of course, things don't go as easily as all that, as the two men traverse a treacherous landscape. Deserted by humans and left to the rats, there's something almost post-apocalyptic about the hellish patch of French land Schofield and Blake find themselves in. Dangers lurk in the stillness of the Spring fog in the form of explosive rigged trenches, crashing German planes and drunken deserters as they attempt to make it to their allies in time to save them.

1917 review

As Schofield and Blake trudge across muddy fields in between the set-pieces that seem to explode out of nowhere when they and we the audience least expect them, we get to learn about the two young men and their differing outlooks. Blake is delighted to have been trusted with such an important mission, and is chuffed at the prospect of receiving a medal. Schofield on the other hand, has grown cynical - he's already received a medal, but implies that he threw it away, much to Blake's disbelief. Following a tragic turn of events, Schofield is forced to put aside his cynicism in order to complete his mission against increasingly insurmountable odds.

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1917 owes as much to horror cinema as to the war film genre, as its heroes find themselves creeping through bombed out structures, where danger can jump out of the shadows at any moment. It has a jump scare involving a rodent and a trip wire that made everyone in my audience collectively leap a foot out of their seats. No effort is made to humanise the Germans, rather we see them as Schofield and Blake see them - ghouls appearing out of the shadows, single-mindedly intent on murder. A striking night-time sequence in the remnants of a once scenic French village sees Mendes and Deakins channel German Expressionism as shadows creep menacingly across shelled out buildings as though a kid is shining a torch through the windows of their dollhouse.

1917 review

Like any single take movie, there are a few moments where we suspect a switch of POV might have been utilised to create further suspense, but for the most part 1917 justifies its adoption of this often gimmicky format. What it does best is embed us in the mind of its young protagonists, allowing us to share the horrors they witness and experience. A closing dedication to Mendes' grandfather ("He told us the stories") is a reminder that as we depart the comfort of our multiplex screens, young boys really had to live through the hell we inhabited for the last two hours. No movie can ever come close to relaying their experience, but 1917 gives it a damn good try.

1917 is on Netflix UK/ROI now.