• '1917' (2019)

    Arriving with considerable acclaim attached, Sam Mendes’s film tells a story of the intimate and the epic. During the Great War, two young British Army corporals are ordered to deliver a message across abandoned but still enemy territory that will save the lives of hundreds, but only if received by dawn. It is inspired by a story told to him by Mendes’s own grandfather and presented as though filmed in a single, two-hour shot. Two different questions are therefore prompted: does it work as a drama and does it work as a cinematic achievement?

    The action begins within seconds of the film’s opening, as Blake and Schofield are awoken from a doze and sent to their commanding officer to be briefed. The Germans have retreated and a British advance begining in the early hours seeks to waylay them as they do so. But reconnaissance has revealed this retreat to be a feint and the two battalions of the British Army about to commit to the charge must be stopped – by hand, telephone wires having been plot-conveniently cut (there is no mention, despite one later playing a critical part in the narrative, of aerial delivery). As they set off through friendly trenches to their jumping-off point into No Man’s Land, the camera alternately follows and leads as it dances between the pair and those around them. Here the film scored highly. It is refreshing after a dozen years of too-tight framing and increasingly frenetic cutting to sit and allow one’s eyes to roam a big screen image almost at leisure, aided, admittedly, by an excellent screening environment in my case. As a result I was unexpectedly drawn to and fascinated by the texture and colour of the mud and especially the richness of the solder’s uniforms, with their belts and straps, pockets and pouches, bayonets and tools.

    A memorable cameo from Andrew Scott as a resigned and somewhat louche officer sends the pair ‘over the top’; the camera moves with them, exposing us and the men alike to the sweep of green grass in the fields, but also the shell holes and barbed wire. As they continue, the sheer expanse of territory covered also impressed, neatly highlighted by subtle changes of camera angle and movement. The waist-high viewpoint for much of the time combined with crane-ups to reveal what is on the other side of berms and barriers reminded me strongly of Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun and its exploration of another battlefield in another war, that through the wide eyes of a child. A particularly satisfying moment occurs when our viewpoint suddenly dips down into a vast crater, unexplained in the narrative but almost certainly from a mine, before skimming across the surface of the water filling its bottom as the two principals skirt round its perimeter. Pushing past a curtain (which appears to form one of the discreet edit points, since the film was, in fact, stitched together digitally from many separate shots) into an abandoned German bunker changes the atmosphere entirely for the duration of the tightly-done scene that follows.

    In truth the (pseudo) single shot – not, please, a ‘take’, which is an attempt to achieve a shot – approach is a red herring. I’m actually a fan of such things and adept at detecting them when casually inserted in typical film and television productions (a three minute circling shot was deployed for a night-time crime scene analysis in the BBC’s Collateral, for example) but was hardly aware of it here after the first few minutes. And that at least makes me query the worth of such a move, because what is actually key here is time. Single shot is certainly not incompatible with the achieving that but neither is it necessary, as its rarity proves. And creating that illusion is as much a function of the way something moves into or out of the frame, the lighting, the lens choice and of course the editing – fully visible in most films – as it is the particular approach chosen by Mendes. That he indulges in some visual and narrative sleight-of-hand at the midpoint that actually interrupts the one-shot in plain sight tends to confirm this.

    That break also introduces a compete change of atmosphere and lighting – to tell more would be a spoiler – that for me simply confirmed the redundancy of the single shot system for this film. It also begins a sequence which lacks entirely the clarity of the early material and shows a shakier grasp of those basic rules. The geography of this small corner of a foreign field, when read against the elapsed time of the narrative, seems equally uncertain, with its topography especially surely taking a giant leap into the unreal shortly afterward after one character does much the same.

    The final act returns us to open-air trenches but the magic of those opening shots has gone. Mirroring – in storyline terms – that earlier advance added little, and crucially the urgency that supposedly informed all of what came before and indeed is emphasised in the publicity was very hard to feel despite the midpoint break that is meant to enhance it. The actual climax seemed pat and unconvincing, again for reasons hard to disclose without giving much away. I was not much moved by any of it, despite my paternal grandfather serving in the same regiment as Mendes’s and winning a medal for a broadly similar act.

    George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman just about convince as Schofield and Blake though their unnatural, hybrid accents – RP endings added to everyday London beginnings, these their natural voices by all accounts – jar slightly. The dynamic between them is established at the start, with their separate motivations. Giving Blake a brother, and hence a personal stake in the mission is rather pedestrian and invariably reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan even if entirely reasonable in real life.

    There is much to admire in this film, with a fresh look at tested techniques and subjects, but ultimately the former overwhelms the latter and neither is exceptional.

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own collage-style spread.

Ivy Press, 2018

ISBN 9781782405443

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