Not since The Revenant, which I first saw almost exactly four years ago to this very week (January seems a really good time to go to the cinema, must be Awards Season, go figure), have I seen such an overpowering, visceral film. You don’t so much watch 1917 as experience it. Using a sort of single-take, you-are-there technique (essentially, the film is shot and structured to suggest the whole thing is one incredibly complex single take, which of course it can’t be). It reminded me a lot of both The Revenant and Gravity, and also sequences in Children of Men; its a technique that can be very intense, with a sense of docu-drama. My only caveat is that its an approach that can threaten to undermine a film, a danger that the technique overpowers the narrative and the film suffers for it.
There is an almost unconscious tendency -one just can’t help it- of trying to second-guess or work out where the hidden cuts are, and while many seem obvious (seconds of darkness transitioning between interiors, say), and others are likely hidden visual effects/split screen trickery that you’ll never see, while you don’t really care, you just can’t help looking for them. Its almost an instinctive thing, maybe most of the public don’t notice or care, maybe its an habitual moviegoer thing, but I just couldn’t help it. So to some extent I found myself almost wishing it had been made traditionally like a normal movie, because I couldn’t help but be pulled out of the narrative by wondering at the sleight of hand being used .
While it can therefore be distracting, it does however endow the film with a powerfully tactile feel of being in the moment, and Sam Mendes uses this extremely well as he pulls the viewer further into his vision of 20th Century Hell- because that’s what World War One and the Trenches really was, absolutely Hell on Earth, and 1917 is certainly one of the most convincing cinematic recreations of that horror that I have seen. Thanks to the great Roger Deakins, of course, one is left with the observation that its rather disconcerting that Hell looks so beautiful to look at it- the beauty in all the horror is really quite disturbing.
Indeed, at times the film really does have the sense of being a horror movie more than it does a war movie. There is a nightmarish quality to some of its imagery that is quite harrowing. The basic plot – its a quest, a journey from one place to another as Homeric as it is Apocalypse Now or say, the original Jacobs Ladder– is frankly pretty routine. Its not the destination, its the getting there, and what it does to the protagonists and us over those two hours.
Possibly one of the best films I shall see this year, I found this incredibly powerful and when I walked out, I really had a sense that I had seen a movie, you know, that I felt different walking out that I had walking in. That’s what movies should be all about, really.