Director Sam Mendes works hard to create an immersive experience, but his derivative story and characters feel like casualties
1917 (Sam Mendes). Opens Wednesday (December 25). 119 minutes. See listing. Rating: NN
Skyfall director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins re-team for the filmmaking answer to “who can hold their breath the longest?” Their glorified First World War film is a 24-hour odyssey shot to mimic a single take. The difficulty and technical savvy in mapping out such a movie doesn’t serve storytelling so much as it feeds a filmmaker’s ego.
The decathlon through the trenches opens with two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), nudged from a tree-side nap to take on a Saving Private Ryan-lite mission, delivering messages between superiors played by Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. They must warn a battalion a day’s hike away that they are marching toward a deadly ambush, and in the process save Blake’s brother (Richard Madden), who is among them.
And so begins a long walk through no man’s land, booby-trapped tunnels, a desolate farm, a village consumed by hellfire, a rushing river and the German front lines. At a certain point, Schofield hitches a ride with a battalion for all of 300 metres, which is one of several dull interludes that isn’t left on the editing room floor because Mendes, Deakins and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns are adhering to rules they imposed upon themselves to achieve what appears to be a feature-length continuous shot.
This means that what the soldiers encounter is dictated less by an honest account of a single day at war and more by what can be worked into the frame in this long-take form. As with Hitchcock’s Rope or Alejandro González Iñnáritu’s Birdman, the edits are hidden at opportune moments, such as when the camera turns a corner or (in one instance) when the person we’re following is knocked unconscious.
Certainly, there are moments that stun and wow, like when Deakins’s camera gazes across scorched earth, observing endless stretches of wasted bodies and ammunition. But his images here can also be ill-served by this panting attempt to keep up with the action. Deakins is arguably the greatest cinematographer working today. His work in previous films – for the Coen brothers, Denis Villeneuve and even Mendes – are superior examples of that.
What comes across here is less an immersive war story like Spielberg’s Private Ryan and more the exhausting effort to create an immersive experience. You’re paying attention to all the work that Mendes, Deakins and their stars Chapman and MacKay are putting in to hit their marks and win accolades. The story about soldiers surviving war feels like a casualty.