Tom Augustine on the film to check out this weekend
Of all the many cinematic gimmicks that have come and gone recently, the one-shot gambit, where an entire film proceeds in one long, unedited take (or is digitally altered to seem that way) is one of the most befuddling to me. Something about the endurance and preparation required to pull off such a take has made it synonymous with remarkable filmmaking and a hallmark of a filmmaker flexing their creative muscles, leading to impressive sequences in films such as Children of Men or Goodfellas. Proponents of the gimmick claim that its use provides a viewer with full immersion - for a moment you are seeing the world through the eyes of someone else. There's validity to that, but in films such as the apparent Oscar frontrunner 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes, Rated R13), the gimmick can cleave dangerously close to showboating, impressiveness for impressiveness' sake without benefit to the story. The film, from Skyfall and American Beauty director Sam Mendes, drops us into the frontlines of WWI where two young soldiers (George Mackay and Dean Charles-Chapman) face an incredibly fraught mission - to cross into No-Mans-Land to deliver a message to an English battalion wandering into a trap set by the enemy. From there the film proceeds, not ineffectively, as a race-against-time thriller, the two heroic soldiers facing seemingly every WWI peril - trenches, mud, miscommunication - in a realistic recreation of a battlefront of the era.
It's all undoubtedly impressive in its execution; a film of mind-boggling effort and intricacy attempting to achieve total immersion and realism. The problem 1917 runs into, much like its predecessors in such exercises, is that it calls too much attention to itself. Instead of immersing the viewer in the conditions of trench warfare, we are instead immersed in how difficult it must be to make this whole thing happen in one take - it's a piece of cinematic trickery that shows its hand too often. Throughout, we're aware of of the constructedness of the film.
That's a shame, because there is good to be found in this. Lead actor George Mackay is wonderful, his gaunt, haunted visage standing out in a way too few of the performers in Dunkirk (whose shadow looms large over this film) did. The experience of watching is hardly uninvolving - at times 1917 feels like a ride, or a video game, and there are certainly thrills to be had in that. It's not until after the credits roll that a certain hollowness sets in, a feeling that an ambitious approach has stolen away a touch of the true poignancy and horror of this time. Thematically, 1917 is disappointingly shallow, but technically, it is undeniably impressive.
Rating: Three and a half stars.