Sunday, January 19, 2020

1917 – set in an immersive battlefield, the technical bravado overshadows a weak story

“Pick a man. Grab your kit.” It’s 6 April 1917, and these instructions thrust Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) into an unwanted mission as he accompanies Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) across no man’s land, through seemingly deserted enemy lines to warn another company not to proceed with an attack that will see thousands of men walk into a trap, with the added hook that Blake’s brother is at the far end and due to be part of the doomed attack.

A single camera travels with the pair, sometimes anticipating their movements, watching from in front and then circling around behind as they navigate the treacherous terrain. The giant CGI rats deserve an Oscar. The very long takes are neatly stitched together, though the passage of time and distance (the lorry, the blackout, the river, resting with the mother and baby) is a constant struggle throughout a two-hour film that relies on enormously detailed trench sets, armies of extras, and fabulous ADR that recreates the immersive sound of the battlefield and the pair’s journey to add grit to the less than weighty story.

As war movies go, 1917 contains at least as many warnings about the failings of war as moments of heroism. Some of its strongest themes are the questioning the motivations of senior leaders (seen to be gung-ho) and the articulation (by Schofield) that widows won’t be cheered up by gallantry medals. This is a film about following orders, brotherhood and sacrifice; about letting go and getting up; about endurance and inner steel; about the fruitlessness and mass death that comes with war.

Neither the storyline nor that dialogue is particularly rich or believable (though the inspiration for the plot comes from a story from director Sam Mendes’ family). It takes a long time before there’s any real sense of tension, even when the pair jump into an Indiana Jones-style sequence running through collapsing tunnels, though the first big death scene delivers an emotional punch. Everyone they meet along the way is merely a wayfarer, present for a few minutes before the mission rushes on past, leaving them in the dust behind. So it’s highly appropriate that near the end Schofield pauses in a field and listens as the haunting voice of a soldier singing The Wayfaring Stranger wafting over resting troops.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there's no sickness, toil or danger
in that bright world to which I go.

I know dark clouds were headin' around me
I know my way is tough and steep
Yet beautious fields lie just before me
Where God's redeemed their vigils keep.

I'm going there to see my mother
She said she'd meet me when I come
I'm only goin' over Jordan
I'm only goin' over home...

The technical bravado (I’d love to see the IMAX version) and 1917’s ambitions are impressive, but perhaps, most of all, Mendes should be applauded for avoiding dressing up war as anything other than a monstrous act that must be avoided at all costs.

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