Behind the lines
A long take through the trenches of World War I
With 10 Oscar nominations for 1917 announced last week—including best picture, best cinematography and best screenwriting and directing for Sam Mendes—the film is shaping up as one of the most prestigious movies of 2019. I think it deserves the special attention it’s getting, even though it’s also in danger of being distractingly overrated.
This sprawlingly detailed war film intrigues, above all, as a relatively simple and intimate tale told in spectacularly large-scale terms. Its plotline, in a nutshell, has two youthful British soldiers carrying a crucial set of orders through the labyrinthian trenches of a World War I “no man’s land” in hopes of preventing the likely massacre of two battalions.
Lance Corporal Blake (played by Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) are longtime pals who follow orders with increasing fervor, even or maybe especially with the mounting indications that they and all their comrades are in way over their heads.
Blake is doubly committed to their mission because his older brother (Richard Madden) is an officer in one of the potentially doomed battalions. Schofield, the less heroically inclined of the two, rejects family ties, but proves increasingly devoted to a distinctly personal kind of esprit de corps.
But the film’s main claims to some kind of greatness have to do with the ways in which the story of the pair’s battlefield journey is mounted. Mendes and ace cinematographer Roger Deakins keep their camera in close proximity to the two principles, and in the process create the impression of one long continuous take as Blake and Schofield trek through terrain that is by turns gruesomely confining and desolatingly expansive.
Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns sketch in some slender details of character and historical setting along the way, but their screenplay is simply war movie generic, even though intelligent as well. In an important respect, that long “continuous” take is the film’s real subject, and its most nuanced and elaborately composed action as well.
It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they’ve created a fascinatingly operatic duet between the parallel battlefield journeys of Schofield and Blake on the one hand, and of Deakins’ camera on the other. And there’s no real shame in not quite matching the gravity and flair of such recent single-take masterpieces as László Nemes’ Oscar-winning Son of Saul (2015), Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), and Nemes’ Sunset (2018).
The plain-spoken directness of Chapman and MacKay’s performances seem especially well-suited to this film in which the actorish performances—Colin Firth as a fusty general, Andrew Scott as a sophomorically gloomy lieutenant, Richard MacCabe as a blustering colonel—come across as silly caricatures. By contrast, Mark Strong is very good as the gravely sympathetic Captain Smith, and Benedict Cumberbatch is suavely sardonic and mercurial as the much sought-after Colonel MacKenzie.