With a single mission and one continuous shot, the film “1917” follows two soldiers in World War I as they try to stop a battalion of 1,600 men from heading into a fatal trap. Lance Corporals Blake and Schofield, played respectively by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay, must trek through no-man’s land with an order from the army command and stop the battalion, including Blake’s brother, before time runs out. “1917” is an intimate war film that makes a small story feel epic through striking visuals and performances.
One of the perks of filming in a single-shot style, like 2014’s “Birdman,” is that the seemingly “small” moments of a story can’t be cut. The audience gets a more intimate look at characters when they aren’t allowed a moment off screen and the downbeats of the story take up the same amount of screen time as the action. One scene in particular features Schofield hitching a ride to the next part of his mission with other soldiers, following an impactful moment of the film, and here he remains silent. The narrative restriction of doing one shot ironically allows for the freedom to fully flesh out small moments like this.
Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, who previously worked together on the James Bond film “Skyfall” (2012), reunite with remarkable visual results. The second half of the film features nighttime scenes which are truly gorgeous. Silhouette imagery is a visual motif of the film, effectively used throughout to juxtapose the background and foreground in these sequences. For example, when Schofield chokes a german soldier hidden in the dark foreground from another soldier by a fire in the back, the visual effect plays up the tension of the sequence as the audience can see everything yet is clueless to how the next moments will unfold.
Despite a simple “point A to point B” plot, the set pieces between those two points really shine. Most notably are the ruins of a town that Schofield sneaks through at night as enemy soldiers attempt to see using flares. The stark contrast of absolute pitch black and the bright white light from the flares reveals the ruins of the town and scattering shadows everywhere. The fluidity the single-shot style creates adds to the power of these moments, as the camera crawls through the debris towards a burning building in the distance and the audience is pushed into the landscape that Mendes has created.
The film features some minor supporting parts, including Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch. Of the four, Scott has the most memorable role; he provides levity early on to an otherwise bleak film. Richard Madden makes a small appearance and delivers his bit with great emotional impact. Chapman gives a solid performance as Blake, with one standout scene about halfway in that lets him push his dramatic acting capabilities. Yet McKay has the most memorable performances, delivered with quiet strength as the toll of war has its effect on his mental and physical well-being.
Much like 2017’s “Dunkirk,” another recent war film, the color palette is filled with muted greys and cool-toned blues and beiges, but at night the scenes come to life with the lush orange glow of fire. The score, composed by Thomas Newman, builds with suspense throughout and leaves the audience fully aware of time running out as the instrumentals swell. The sets and props highlight the grotesque landscape of war: from rotting horse corpses in no-man’s land to bloated dead bodies in the river, the desolate and unrelenting decay in the film presents the ugly face of war. “1917” takes the events of one day during a four-year-long war and creates an expansive and thrilling experience.