Roger Deakins creates nice images — this is a statement which, at this avenue in film history, feels like a pointlessly obvious one to make. And while 1917 is a film replete with “nice images”, they also possess an undercurrent of tedium. I had felt — at least for a while — as though the long-take had finally been laid to rest after nearly a whole decade’s worth of dead-horse-flogging. Yet that same cold pulse that keeps these images trundling along with nary a cut is just as evident here; as filmmaker Sam Mendes now harnesses the whip that is another underdeveloped tale of male endurance.
1917 follows two British soldiers, played by George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman, as they traverse across a war-torn France with a withdrawal notice destined for a battalion who are set to cross enemy lines at dawn and, unbeknownst to them, fall right into a German trap. Pairing the quasi-Romantic hardships of men battling against the odds with the one-take is a preconceived assumption which Mendes takes on board without ever meaningfully deconstructing, as 1917 very much recycles the same tired creed that Iñárritu/Lubezki collaborations The Revenant (2015) and Birdman (2014) epitomised in the last decade — that examining action in elongated real-time can make up for what is an otherwise thin and overly-familiar story. It is wrong to assume that visual authenticity or tonal heft can be substantially conveyed through the camera’s unbroken takes alone, exercised as a substitute for the contents of its image; an exercise that is so often the malady of many a film teacher’s woes. You can get suckered into The Revenant’s wide-angle “unfiltered” wilderness, or get lost in Birdman’s psycho-geographical drum-lit swings and bows, but in either case, the only truth that seems to be communicated is that something is being compensated for. Both films rely on us buying into their second-rate backstories in order to convince us of the importance of these physical and psychological (respectively) male endurance tests. What the one-take is, however, is a very effective tool of immersion; something which is often both wrongly seen as an extension of and mistakenly declared as realism. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), a not-so-distant digital antecedent to today’s one-take extravagances, stands as an exemplar against this association. It explores St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace in one beautiful anachronistic sweep — it revels in the serene ghostliness of both the camera’s disembodied floatiness and the narrative’s disregard for strict temporality. Far from this is 1917 — in supplanting this uneasy ideological connection made between realism and immersion into the setting of a very male war film, the film can only wish to convey the former but in truth commits to the latter.
The one-take style, rolling throughout 1917’s two-hour span (besides a brief blackout halfway through), provides the false guise of a film with natural narrative fluidity. In truth, the film is a series of sutured vignettes, each one a blistering trial — from a strobing shower of white flairs during a nighttime escape in some French ruins, to a tense slog through a crater-ridden no-man’s-land — which the otherwise fluid camera seems to betray. One moment of lavish visual action bleeds into another via brief pseudo-reflective interludes that fall well short of actual poignancy and expose the fraying twine of clumsy imagery and unnecessary dialogue that binds these moments together. The rest of the film rides on the immersive power of the one-take as this pretence for narrative blandness. In so many aspects, it wishes to be more than it is: exciting but never satisfying, emotive but never emotional, impressive but consistently self-congratulatory. It is a film where the genuine feels plastic and where realism is flaunted but rarely achieved. Its crumbling trenches, swampy fields, bloody rags, and stonewashed faces feel appropriate albeit aesthetically sterile; the tactility and environmental spontaneity is sadly missing as a result of Mendes’ commitment to the elegant calculations of his style. Any sense of horror is diluted; left at the level of suggestion. I will argue that George Mackay is a wonderful piece of casting — there is a haunted but youthful quality to Mackay’s features and performance, most immediately reminiscent of the physically-aging innocence of Come and See’s Aleksey Kravchenko. Elsewhere, the casting appears as little more than a who’s-who of contemporary British talent. Any humanistic empathy it wishes to communicate is bolstered by the faceless/nameless, one-dimensional, and nationalistic morality that frames its enemy soldiers. Though the presence of a Sikh soldier hints towards a more open representation of the diversity of the frontline, the film can never escape its own flecks of masculine centricity — its war is one without women, and those women that do feature are, like so many of 1917’s predecessors, either lost mothers or the long-suffering prizes of anguished men.
With undoubted spectacle abound, 1917 finds itself stuck in its own scuffle between delicate realism and pronounced theatricality, but never really succeeds in being either. Technical accomplishments and cinematic flamboyance are utilised to only within a fraction of their potential as it is becomes ever so clear that, as our characters march forward, this grand vision of a prestige war picture is slighted by the vanity of its own declarations. The epic designs at play cannot best the familiar, as 1917 unwittingly repeats the irritating and loaded cine-politics associated with its core cinematic gimmick.