Feeling heavily enlightened and emotionally shattered during Sir Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, I grew to realise a potential double meaning behind the film's title.
It's a line from Robert Laurence Binyon's poem For the Fallen which, when used here, reflects the colossal restoration and colouring efforts put in place to house the memories of those who gave their lives to World War I. It's also a stark reminder of the youth that was stolen from these men.
The beginning spends a solid chunk of time re-establishing early 20th-century Britain with hardly any visual touches. It's a clever framing device that successfully settles the audience into the era they think they know, only to overwhelm with colour and size once the soldiers enter the battlefield.
This digitalised revamping is unlike anything I've seen before — certainly not as simple as clicking a "turn on the colour" button. Rather, it takes on a semi-surreal painting-in-motion look, very faintly reminiscent of last year's Loving Vincent where every frame was literally a painting.
Through this method, the life in the faces and bodies of these men truly stand out, especially in contrast to the bleakness of their mudbound, ironclad, bloodstained environment. There's no detailed footage of men dying on the battlefield — only stills of their corpses — as if to grimly remind you that when a man dies, his whole world stops. It truly strains the heart.
Jackson and his team grant movement and colour to the living while archival audio allows the actual soldiers to narrate the film with first-hand accounts. From it, a fascinating collective mindset emerges as they share strikingly similar thoughts on enlisting, killing, dying, the disgusting food, the pleasures in following orders, and the friendships they formed — even with the enemy.
The film does not shy away from showing the harrowing details — both big and small — that made up this ungodly time and place. It's a necessary despair to depict, for the biggest and most bittersweet quality that connected these soldiers was an ability to keep spirits high. A century on, They Shall Not Grow Old takes hold of that quality too, by keeping those spirits lifted with a cinematically caressed experience that preserves their faces and treasures their words.
R16 (Graphic content may disturb)
An emotionally devastating, enlightening and essential documentary.