“They’re walking into a trap. Your orders are to deliver a message calling off tomorrow morning’s attack. If you fail, it will be a massacre.”General Erinmore
An unconventional approach to a war movie, 1917 follows two young soldiers in near realtime as they journey across no man’s land and through enemy territory to deliver a vital message. Sam Mendes’ directorial conceit is a faux unbroken continuous shot, like Birdman but serving greater narrative purpose here. The first half hour is intentionally slow, swiftly setting up the plot but allowing us time to understand the two soldiers through simple conversation that reveals one as fresh and idealistic, the other as disillusioned by his experience of combat. The isolation punctuated by limited combat is reminiscent of Enemy at the Gates at least in atmosphere. Roger Deakins’ cinematography keeps the camera moving around the actors through long takes (although nothing so densely choreographed as Atonement‘s Dunkirk sequence), creating a real sense of space and often acting almost as an additional character through whom the audience observes. The grim depiction of corpse-littered battlefields — and the men’s ambivalence to such sights — leave no pretence at glorification of war. However, 1917 is still beautifully shot, particularly the stunning lighting in its night time sequences. Recognisable actors play only brief roles as commanding officers; the rank and file are a sea of unfamiliar faces, aiding the immersion. It is ultimately George MacKay who carries the film, desperation and weariness etched into his face.