I went into 1917 knowing two things about the film:
- It was about the Great War;
- It used a new filming technique that allowed the entire 2+ hour film to have zero cuts.
That was it and, honestly, I think that lack of further context made an enormous difference. That's why I'm starting this review doing something I never bother to do: give a spoiler warning. Do not read any further unless you have seen the film. Why? (Seriously, stop reading now) Because this film matters. It matters from a cinematic perspective, it matters from a cultural perspective, and it matters from a historical perspective. You owe it to yourself to watch it with as unfiltered of a view as possible.
You can probably tell that 1917 affected me. I had expected that to some extent, but not by half as much as it did. The last ten minutes were beyond powerful, but that power was layered so deftly as to be near perfect. The conclusion to the story was obviously a huge bundle of stress, relief, horror, sadness and anguish, all of which the actors conveyed perfectly. From a real world perspective, it obviously holds enormous connotations to the nature of warfare, the utter nightmare of the first World War, and the ridiculousness of the bravery, compassion, idiocy, and folly that were need to all come together to make that war (and any war) actually happen. And from a technical perspective, the director, composer, and rest of the production team had done such an incredible job of building you to an emotional climax that just about anything would have set me off. Stack all of those on top of each other and... wow. I was crying in the cinema. I was barely able to talk about it as we left. We went on a run and that helped, but then over an hour later in the shower a single memory set me off again. Not weeping, blubbering crying, just uncontrollably silent tears that I could do nothing about. Affecting would be an understatement.
But lets talk about something else for a second, Let's talk about the "one take" effect, because my word, it worked. It definitely added to the realism of the film, including that final crash of the emotional wave as the credits rolled. Zero cuts meant you practically forgot your were watching a film at times, it made it feel more like a documentary. Yes, you could tell it was being filmed, but you couldn't tell it was a film, which I think are subtly, yet powerfully, different. At the same time, and unlike a huge number of other film gimmicks I've seen, after the first one or two minutes I didn't really notice it consciously. Right at the start my brain kept waiting for the expected cut, the sudden transition to someone's face or the refocusing onto the other person talking. It was almost a little unnerving. However, by the end of the first trench run my brain had just accepted it completely and by the fifteen minute mark it wasn't even a consideration.
That said, when a cut was obvious, it did bring me out of the story momentarily. These were rare and, for the most part, clever. Cuts were hidden in darkness, which worked almost perfectly from a narrative perspective, so are fully forgiven, but you did still get the occasionally swipe cut. A tree or fence post would move in front of the camera as the characters passed behind it, and it felt like the other side was subtly different. I think some of these were added which actually weren't cuts, but just moments when you expect them to be, particularly in the woods, but if that deception was the case then it failed. They still reminded me of the gimmick and that I was in a cinema, not a field in occupied territory. Perhaps my interest in videography meant I was more susceptible to these moments, but it still felt like a shame.
My only other criticism of the film is that it occasionally feels too much like Hollywood. For the most part, 1917 felt perfect in its portrayal of the utter despair and reality of war (in so much as someone with no experience of the matter can judge it, at least), eschewing the traditional American heroism that ruins so many movies about warfare. However, there were still individual moments that felt a little over the top. The most egregious of these is the manner in which Blake dies. Of all the threats, having an enemy plan crash on them, surviving that and then getting stabbed by the pilot as he died... it just felt a bit horror movie ridiculous. Admittedly, at the time, it didn't bother me at all, so it's hardly a major sin, but when I was thinking back over the film afterwards it begin to feel just a little... dumb. There were similar moments with the inexplicably poor sniper, the discovery of a baby in the on-fire town, and the waterfall that all just felt, when combined, that this was a tall story rather than a historically accurate depiction.
That said, 1917 doesn't claim to be real. It's clearly based on real events and the locations are real, but the core story and main characters are all fictional. Instead, it's based on the stories of the director's grandfather, who fought in the Great War, and viewing it through that lens it becomes somehow more acceptable to have those larger-than-life moments. I've no doubt many were taken from individual tales or research when writing the script, but the idea that they would all happen to one person within 24 hours is just a touch too fantastical for me and makes the film a little less real as a result.
Those two incredibly minor criticisms aside, however, the film is flawless. Both Blake and Schofield give incredible performances, backed up by an amazing secondary cast that are just perfect. A particular shout out to Richard Madden, an actor I very much enjoy but who gives a stunning yet brief piece of acting; ditto Andrew Scott, better known as Moriarty, who is just incredible. It almost seems unfair to mention any actor, though, as the acting and dialogue throughout are perfect. Set design is obviously remarkable, having to cope with nothing but pan shots that means a huge amount of detail everywhere, and succeeds in feeling utterly real. Pacing is spot on, keeping the tension high but allowing you to breath at just the right points. The score helps hugely in that respect, with some incredibly clever musical themes woven throughout.
Direction and production are obviously excellent, too, which means that this is, from a technical perspective, a pretty much perfect film. Whilst a few small niggles mean it isn't 100% perfect, it's also, in my opinion, an immensely important film. As I said a the start, it's incredibly moving as well, but more than 1917 feels like a war film that deserves to be watched in honour of the very themes it is trying to convey. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and coming out with anything other than an enormous sense of respect and gratitude to those that lived through that war, as well as a righteous fear and determination to ensure it never happens again. Whilst warfare has moved on in the century since WW1, making that particularly gruesome style of trench warfare obsolete, the reality of what happened is important. For me, that places 1917 in line with films like Schindler's List. They may not be truly perfect, but they're culturally important. The kind of film that deserve to be shown in schools, that almost should be compulsory viewing. In that sense, 1917 is perfect; it's a cultural touchpoint that, as I've said before, truly matters.
It may also be one of the only films which really lives up to the sentence: it's better in the cinema. Sure, big budget action films benefit from the big screen and explosions, and both comedies and horror movies alike benefit from the crowd experience, but sometimes films come out that just need to be seen at scale. I believe 1917 is one of them. You don't need IMAX or super surround sound, but it should be large and quiet and dark, allowing you to devote your attention and become fully absorbed. It's worth it. Plus, you get the experience of a film ending and having an entirely silent, thoughtful cinema where no one really even wants to move. Star Wars this ain't!
And to think I was recently wondering if I'd ever rate a film 6/6 or if I should readjust my criteria. Nope, I shouldn't. 1917 is exactly the kind of movie that reminds me why I added a sixth star and it utterly deserves it. Just incredible.