This film won the Golden Globe for Best Drama and so did Sam Mendes for his quite brilliant direction (the film appears to be a single take but there is only one obvious one and some hidden edits). It won seven BAFTAs, including the above, as well as Outstanding British Film of the Year and four technical awards. It lost out to Parasite for Best Film at the Oscars but won for Cinematography (the great Roger Deakins), Visual Effects and Sound Mixing. And yes, it’s as good as all those awards suggest. Sam Mendes has written and directed this film in honour of his grandfather who fought in WWI and is based on the stories he told of his time on the front. Two young British soldiers, Schofield (Captain Fantastic’s George MacKay) and Blake (Game of Thrones’ Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a seemingly impossible mission. In a race against time, they must cross enemy territory and deliver a message that will stop a deadly attack on hundreds of soldiers–Blake’s own brother among them. That is the extent of the plot but there are plenty of incidents on the way, stunning cinematography and some very moving moments.
The film is thick with atmosphere. Twenty minutes in, as Schofield and Blake leave the trenches, Mendes gives them a rude awakening — a portent of what’s to come, perhaps. Due to the insanity of the war — the horror and the madness — there’s a surreal quality to much of 1917, and for a large part of it the corporals’ quest feels like a dark The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings— they are Sam and Frodo heading into Mordor, and soon after setting off they find themselves in a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape. Here, as with many of its sequences, 1917 excels, every camera move paying off. It’s a grim spectacle, but an incredible one.
For the first act, it’s relentlessly tense. With a nerve-shattering journey over the top, an unfortunate barbed-wire encounter and a mysterious bunker to contend with, you’re breathless throughout and the worry is that it’ll all become too much. But Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns are careful to mix up the pacing, allowing for the quieter moments among the horrors of war that make the set pieces all the more impactful. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman quickly build up a good rapport with endearing performances, crucial in a movie that rarely leaves their side and requires the audience to be fully behind them. All the extraordinary technical prowess on display would mean little if you didn’t care – and you absolutely do.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall