past tense: marvelled; past participle: marvelled
1. be filled with wonder or astonishment
I think I can count the amount of times I have properly marvelled at a film on one hand. I have a lot of different positive reactions to movies; laughter, excitement, surprise, absorption, love, but to actually sit there and be amazed at what they have managed to put up on screen is a very rare thing. I would say I felt this way about Terminator 2 and Gravity, both because of their groundbreaking visual effects, and also with the Korean film The Villainess due to the astonishing fight sequences (you really should search that one out). Today I can add director Sam Mendes’ new First World War movie to this select group.
The technical skill behind 1917 is incredible. The whole thing is presented as two single takes and the way these long shots are put together is brilliant. The German film Victoria actually did this for real five years ago, with the whole two hour running time being one unbroken shot, but 1917 takes the Birdman route of stitching shorter takes together using digital trickery (some change overs you can see, like when something like a wall or a person fills the whole frame, others not) The longest single shot is probably only about ten minutes or so but this doesn’t matter; ten minutes is impressive enough by itself, and Mendes doesn’t just give us one of these like he did in Spectre, he has lots of them all the way through the film. The composition of each of these is just masterly and the logistics and planning behind them is so skilled. Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins have excelled themselves, even when judged against their own impressive past work. As you can imagine, a film geek like me just delighted in it.
Of course not everyone watching this is going to be a cinema nerd and the question has to be whether the film stands up without this or whether it is a bit of a gimmick. Interestingly I fear that I may have allowed the technical aspect of the film to distract a little precisely because I was watching it so closely and I suspect that this won’t be a problem for a lot of viewers. (People often ask me if I can just watch a film and my answer is always yes, but possibly in a slightly different way. I blame my film studies degree tutors.) Fortunately the story and performances in 1917 are also excellent.
George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman are two Lance Corporals in France who have to deliver an important message on foot across no mans land after an apparent German retreat. They are not alone for the whole mission but often they are and they hold the audience close with them the whole time (the unbroken shots help with this). Their narrative is so compelling as between them they cover ground through trenches, bomb disturbed plains, deserted farm houses and burning towns meeting various inevitable dangers along the way. Crucially what the film shows is the horror of war and while this might mean some excessive levels of injury detail, it is right that we get this education. Men on both sides had to fight these battles and as the brilliant documentary They Shall Not Grow Old also showed, they should not be forgotten.
There is some conceit in a few of the story beats with you not being sure that in reality these things would quite play out as they do. It is interesting that this is Mendes’ first writing credit as on occasion I do think the plot is slave to the direction. I’m also not sure the real time element holds together either and there is some stunt casting (at one point the mission is apparently to get from Moriarty to Sherlock in the quickest time possible). The one woman in the movie is a bit of a genre trope too, possibly even a slightly sexist and reductive one. None of these small imperfections matter in the bigger picture though because so much of what is hard to get right is flawless.
Take away the technical aspect of the movie and it isn’t as good as Journey’s End, Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk (a film with its own gimmick) but factor this in, which you have to, and 1917 is a superb, gripping, heart rending, exhilarating and truly marvellous piece of work.
You have to see it.
The Ripley Factor:
Don’t read on if you’ve not seen the film as this is a bit of a spoiler but, as alluded to above, the sole female character is not challenging any gender stereotypes.
She is basically every French peasant girl found hiding in a building in every WW1 (or 2) film ever. She is young, she is vulnerable, she is pretty and oh, what do you know, she’s looking after a baby. Again, I’m reluctant to criticise the movie for this too heavily but imagine if the local resident skulking in the dark, caring for an abandoned infant had been male and the person who our hero had to strangle to save himself was a woman. Either of those things would have been bold and progressive. Martin Freeman could have taken her part.
Like everything in the film though it is all forgivable and actually the scene in question was still very powerful.