The film tells of a last-ditch push for victory in one of history's most godforsaken conflicts. And at last night's 77th Golden Globe Awards, Sam Mendes's 1917 unexpectedly became a late-breaking Oscar season favourite. The First World War survival thriller, which follows two young British soldiers on a life-or-death mission through no man's land, was the shock winner in the ceremony's Best Motion Picture – Drama category, against heavyweight opposition including Marriage Story, The Irishman and Joker. And in another surprise, minutes earlier Mendes was named Best Director, beating Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon-ho and Todd Phillips.
Mendes's film, which is constructed to look as if it unfolds in just two seemingly impossible continuous shots, was one of the last to be screened to the 90 or so members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association who vote for the Globes, and its technical dazzle clearly made an impression.
Its dual triumph will encourage the Academy's own membership to give it serious consideration while filling out their first-round Oscar ballots, which are due tomorrow – and should also help coax audiences into cinemas when it opens in the UK on Friday.
While there's no overlap between the HFPA and the much larger industry bodies who pick the Oscars, the Baftas and the various guild awards, the Globes can help voters elsewhere whittle down their often bewildering longlists – particularly in a truncated awards season like the current one, which has been squeezed by two weeks thanks to this year's unusually early Oscar ceremony on Sunday February 9.
Meanwhile, nerves will doubtlessly be fraying at Netflix, whose enviable 17 nominations translated into just one win last night, for Laura Dern's cut-throat supporting turn in Marriage Story. After a close shave with Roma last year, the streaming service is out to win Best Picture once again, and with Marriage Story and The Irishman was widely seen to be holding a couple of formidable aces.
Its strong showing across the Globes' 14 film categories does suggest that most of the HFPA members view the company as just another branch of the movie business, rather than an existential threat to it, as it's regarded in some quarters. But still, their decision to honour a film that's tailor made for the big-screen experience – and, I'd argue, only really makes sense as one – does strike a blow for old-school Hollywood at a time when such gestures can feel especially pointed.
Though 1917 personally left me cold, the result is by no means a Bohemian Rhapsody-level embarrassment. (At last year's Globes, lest we forget, the ramshackle Queen biopic somehow came top in a Best Drama category that also included A Star Is Born.)
Rather it feels more like Green Book's parallel victory in Best Comedy/Musical: a boost for an undeniably well-crafted film whose virtues are all bobbing away placidly on the surface, like rubber ducks ripe for the hooking. Marriage Story and The Irishman weren't hurt by their Netflix branding – but both films, particularly Scorsese's, unquestionably ask the viewer to plunge in deep.
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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood rewards either of these approaches – so perhaps it's no surprise that Quentin Tarantino's epic billet-doux to vintage Los Angeles was the other big winner of the night. It took three awards in the end: Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Performance – Actor for Brad Pitt, whose first Oscar now surely awaits, and Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (the Globes' view of genre is famously elastic).
Again, you can only read so much into this. One of the Globes' Best Motion Picture picks ends up foreshadowing the equivalent Oscar around half of the time, but the fact they effectively present the prize twice – once to a drama, and once to a comedy or musical – does help their average somewhat.
Still, Mendes and Tarantino's films both now feel like plausible frontrunners for Best Picture. Had the South Korean satirical thriller Parasite managed to break out of the Best Foreign Language Film ghetto, it would have unquestionably joined them – but in the director and screenplay categories, nominations were as far as it got.
Bong Joon-ho's Palme d'Or winner remains the darkest of this year's horses, snorting and shaking its mane in the shadows, still waiting for a chance to race against its rivals on equal turf. Watch tomorrow morning's Bafta nominations closely: it may yet gallop out in front of the pack.