1917 isn’t so much style-over-substance as style-is-substance, with the movie seemingly taking place in real time, filmed as if it was one continuous shot, which brings a unique flavor to a war movie such as this (a dose of grace and fluidity to a subject notorious for its chaos and fracturing) but I’m not sure it brings that much else to the table.
Opening on flowers in a field in northern France, the camera pulls back to reveal two resting soldiers, Blake and Schofield (Dean Charles-Chapman and George Mackay), who’re awoken and told to report to their general (a cameoing Colin Firth), and as they make their way, the camera follows them, which it will for the whole film, and once they enter the general’s bunker they’re ordered on a dangerous mission: it’s April 1917, still a year and a half before the end of the Great War, and two battalions of pursuing British infantry are unaware they’re falling into a German trap, which will result in British slaughter, so Blake, who’s good at reading maps, and Schofield are called upon to deliver a message calling off the impending attack, with Blake especially gung-ho about going because he has a personal connection, his brother is on the front line, and so it’s a race against time as they have to make their way through “abandoned” enemy territory beset with booby traps, snipers, and other horrors of the first modern war.
The film’s stylistic choice lends it a videogame-esque feel, especially during one sequence where the two heroes go combing through a farm looking for hidden hostiles, even though it looks abandoned, but “we have to make sure” Blake says, and just as “sure” leaves his mouth, the camera readies itself into action position behind the protagonists and suspense music begins to play as though it were starting a new level and you’re about to take control of the characters, but instead of playing, you’re watching and because it’s supposedly taking place in real time, and because the story involves a 12-mile journey, there’s a lot of watching people walking in real time, the respite between major incidents can’t be skipped over by editing, and though none of it’s boring exactly, there is a sense of “let’s get on with it!” in these moments, but the long takes do accomplish something that edits sometimes cannot, they communicate an astounding scope, long walks through the trenches in the early in the film aren’t necessarily that interesting drama-wise but visually lend the film an immense sense of scale as the characters walk and walk through unending, serpentine trenches, giving a clear idea of just how large these frontlines were during World War I.
Shot by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, 1917 is gorgeous, with one particular sequence showcasing his mastery of light and shadow as Schofield makes his way through the ruins of a bombed-out French town at night lit only by a continuous barrage of flairs, eventually making his way to a burning building, which bathes the screen in a glowing saffron orange, leaving the characters mere shadows against the flaming backdrop.
Sometimes the splendor of the film’s direction, photography, and its alternately dreamy and thunderous score by Thomas Newman eclipse the movie’s thematic concerns (the stuff that’s connected mostly with the non-action/suspense scenes) and so these scenes of what you might call “character moments” don’t have the drive and don’t hold interest as much as they should, as if director Sam Mendes, who ironically made a name for himself as a drama auteur before switching to blockbuster fare with the last two James Bond extravaganzas, can’t or isn’t interested in finding the pulse of these scenes, which feel perfunctory and inert next to the film’s many Big Moments.
I’m sure 1917 wouldn’t be terribly memorable without its one-take wonder, but that’s a weird argument since that stylistic choice is the reason for the film to exist, and so, the substance is the style of 1917, and that technical marvel (as the movie takes us through explosions, crumbling tunnels, over waterfalls, along raging rapids all in one take) mostly makes up for its other shortcomings, and one thing is for sure, you’ve never quite seen a war movie like this one.