Astonishingly, breathtakingly, technically brilliant, “1917” is a mesmerising, masterful achievement in the art and technique of cinema. But this is no cold, Zemeckis-like exercise in technological advancement and instead uses its relentless focus and visceral real-time storytelling to relay the human tragedy of warfare at its most grandiose and grotesque folly.
April 1917: The German Army has pulled back from a sector of the western front and the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment is planning to pursue, believing the Germans to be on the run. But it is a tactical retreat and aerial reconnaissance has shown that the Devonshire Regiment are heading into a trap. With all lines of communication cut, two Lance Corporals, Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Will Schofield (George MacKay) are tasked with hand-delivering a message by passing through no man’s land and into enemy territory to deliver orders to call off the attack.
“1917” is an unflinching portrayal of the realities of the First World War without ever tipping over into being showy or gratuitous. There’s a potent intimacy to the way the story is told, the almost effortless impossibility of the movements of our vantage point keeping us focussed on our protagonists and the fluidity with which our perspective changes is a work of unparalleled genius. Immersed as you are in the sights and sounds of war-torn France, you barely notice that there’s not actually that much dialogue and the film often manages to convey more emotional weight and dramatic intensity during its wordless sequences where Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins let the astonishing visuals do the talking.
Relentlessly kinetic, harrowing and powerfully emotive, “1917” is both a peerless example of cinema and – almost – a kind of theme park attraction in that you don’t sit and passively watch the movie, you experience it, possibly endure it and ultimately survive it – unscathed of course, but unmoved? Impossible. It’s a movie that in one scene alone it draws a much clearer line between J R R Tolkein’s wartime experiences and his creation of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ than the film “Tolkien” managed in nearly two hours.