Film Review: 1917 (2019)

Written by Jasper Harris

It is a well known fact amongst those who know me that I, at least to those who do not know better, watch too many films. Naturally, I stand by the power of the medium that I hold so dear, and thus believe that it is impossible to watch too many films. So, with all the grace of an elephant on roller-blades, I assure them that there are still quite a few to go, and that I would much rather be watching one than having this conversation, thank you very much. 

Of course, due to the fact that I have, as we have just found out, seen a lot of films, I have gotten quite good at noticing ‘hidden’ things in films, much the same as anyone with a taste for the silver screen. Special effects that stand out too much, the stunt double that looks nothing like the big star, tricks of the light and so forth. Unfortunately, watching films has slightly taken away the ability to just, you know, watch a film. 

So as I sat in the cinema watching ‘1917’, I found myself actively seeking the cuts. Anything that claims to do something normally doesn’t, films doubly so. Some were obvious (new rooms and the such), some were hidden with egregious use of CGI, and some, as with the one at around the midpoint, were just big and glaring. 

But despite this, and despite the fact that it wasn’t just me seeing them (people nearby who had seen it before were counting the cuts with a notepad and pen), the ‘one-shot’ had, to some extent, the desired. Even just the knowledge that the film would refuse to cut when we wanted it to most was enough to really drive the action that step further. And believe me, the action in this film is very good. Each sequence is just long enough to churn a stomach, but stops at just the right moment so as not to become an ordeal to be sat through, rather than experienced. A fine balance, but one that ‘1917’ manages for the most part. 

Through all this, as I’m sure those of you who have seen the film, or even watched the trailer will agree, it is Roger Deakins cinematography that makes the film truly a visual spectacle. One shot films are always a challenge (for a number of reasons), and for the most part, the camera almost always feels the need to be constantly on the move. And yet, Deakins finds enough time to just have the camera sit and be still when it feels right. It hits hard and it looks great. Great is the wrong word. Beautiful. It hits hard and looks beautiful. 

Unfortunately, the film falls further on the style side than that of substance. While it is undeniable that the film’s ‘gimmick’, for lack of a better term, helps to aid the action sequences, any scene that’s just dialogue, or exposition, or merely just quieter in tone, the long take fails to do its job. There’s no reason for it to be happening. It adds nothing. If anything, it distracts from the story. Which I would regard as a shame under most other circumstances, and yet, when the narrative feels like it means nothing, and so totally unrealistic, it’s hard to care. I tried, I really did (however, a supposed criticism of me was that I didn’t pay enough attention during ‘Joker’, so I guess this one is on me).

The story follows two Lance Corporals in World War One, Blake and Schofield, who have been ordered to carry a message over No-Man’s Land to Blake’s brother’s regiment to call of the next mornings attack eight miles away. 

I would go on, if the film had any more plot. I really wish I could. They come across a cherry garden, a pilot, a burned ruin, a woman, a river, and finally the regiment. I mean, to fill the time, it’s comparatively nothing. And that’s all this film is. One hundred and nineteen minutes of very pretty pictures, and not a huge amount more.  

And it’s not just the story, or lack thereof, that lets the film down. A sub-par script, and some not hugely fantastic acting cement this film as more a technological marvel than anything else. And while that may be acceptable had it been a lesser set of filmmakers, but from the man whose directorial debut was ‘American Beauty’, I just expected so much more. I think that is what really sums up ‘1917’ for me. Good, but not good enough. 

The ‘one-shot’ film is truly a weird thing from a film-making perspective. To be forced to disregard impactful editing of any kind really is a tall order, and so a film needs a fantastic reason to just drop this vital part of film-making. ‘1917’ however, has a good reason. It serves a narrative purpose, a good one. And uses it to an impactful end. It’s just whether the film would have been better off without it that is the question. 

Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ taught us that we could do one take films. ‘Birdman’ showed us that they could be great. ‘1917’ has taught us that the gimmick does not mean they are necessarily so.

About the author

Jasper Harris

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