Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Richard Madden, Andrew Scott
Director: Sam Mendes
Rating: * * * *
Devoid of dizzying cuts and frenetic editing, and shot for the main part in the longest of tracking shots, Sam Mendes’s gritty drama takes the viewer into the unnerving spectacle of World War One.
It’s entirely possible cinematographer Roger Deakins will bag an Oscar along with actors George Mackay and Dean Charles Chapman and director Mendes who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, adapting the stories his grandfather told him about his stint in the British Army.
1917 opens with two young soldiers Schofield (Mackay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) being chosen to deliver an important message to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), leader of a battalion situated beyond enemy lines, in order to save the 1,600 strong unit under his command which includes Blake’s older brother, Joseph (Richard Madden).
The tense, dangerous journey is covered by a camera that pursues the young duo across booby-trapped barracks, and the corpse and mine – infested French countryside.
The good guy/bad guy divide is clearly delineated. The Brits are decent, compassionate and funny. The baddie Germans are depicted as cunning and merciless, even slaughtering cattle (‘empty bellies can’t fight’ as a Sikh soldier sums it).
MacKay is impressive as the working class, disaffected loner who chafes at being picked to partner an upper class compatriot, and emerges truly heroic. A person’s character can be gauged from the way s/he treats others and this is beautifully depicted in a brief encounter between Schofield and a young Frenchwoman tending to an orphaned baby in the basement of a bomb-ravaged home. Where depraved humans might have raped and killed, Schofield is generous and caring.
When he finally catches up with the battalion, it is the kind of “moment” that makes you catch your breath or your heart skip a beat. A lone soldier’s voice wafts over a woody glen, singing a hymn while his fellow soldiers listen in utter stillness. For a moment, I thought they were dead, but no, they were entranced, spellbound by the hymn. As you will be too, gentle reader by this moving anti-war testament.