You’ll never see Roger Deakins on screen, but he’s in every frame of director Sam Mendes’ new war epic “1917,” from the opening frames bathed across a sea of endless green grass until the final cut to black before the credits.
World-renowned as a master craftsman in his art, the British-born Deakins achieves his magnum opus with “1917” – a visual spectacle combining his years of experience as film’s premiere cinematographer and his unique eye for capturing fleeting moments to last a lifetime.
The film intends to follow two young English lance corporals as they journey across enemy lines during World War I to deliver a message calling off an impending attack on German forces that will ambush and kill 1600 British soldiers, and for the most part, it does so considerably well.
What “1917” truly is, however, is an arresting, unparalleled feat of technical cinema that will dazzle audiences with its extended, world-spanning one-take camera work that pulls audiences in and gives the effect of continuous, unedited filming over the course of two hours, fully immersing viewers in the shoes of two brave, yet scared young men.
George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman propel the engine that makes “1917” work as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, respectively. Their easy chemistry amid the most difficult working conditions for actors is especially impressive and the relatively limited dialogue in the screenplay allows for the pair to wear their emotions on their sleeve with haunting eyes.
“1917” pulls the camera in close on both performers and presses in on these non-verbal cues to show, not tell audiences about the mental strains placed on young WWI servicemen and MacKay’s stoicism matched with Chapman’s heart leaps off the screen at every turn.
Though the bulk of the film follows the two young leads, “1917” is also littered by brilliant supporting turns from a number of talented British character actors from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Mark Strong, as well as Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Each actor pops up at exactly the right moment to provide gravitas and emotional depth.
The film’s harrowing subject matter and plot leave audiences constantly on edge as Schofield and Blake could easily encounter imminent death over every ridge or around the next corner. An unbroken, continuous camera frame heightens this suspense and keeps audiences dialed in to the duo’s circumstances, equally unsure what’s to come next.
Mendes and Deakins masterfully contend with the elements over the course of meticulously pre-conceived panning shots, often relying on natural light to illuminate scenes and operating free-flowing panoramic cameras that allowed for steady and smooth 360-degree rotation.
Each second of “1917” is a precisely choreographed dance between actors and camera operators, moving across dynamic, uneven terrain and across miles of intricate bunkers and sets hand-crafted for shooting.
Mendes and editor Lee Smith blend scenes together confidently with limited breaks in the dynamic visuals, cheating slightly as the camera is obscured from viewing Schofield and Blake at various points to hide cuts in the film. Most viewers won’t notice these slight imperfections in the cinema that provide the overall look of the film as they will be too entrenched in the pair’s plight and Thomas Newman’s gripping score to peer behind the curtain.
A multiple Golden Globe winner, “1917” is certain to be one of the most nominated Academy Award contenders this spring, immediately vaulting into frontrunner status for cinematography, direction and production design. Newman’s haunting, pitch-perfect orchestral score should win as well, though it has lost recently to Hildur Guõnadóttir’s equally transfixing accompaniment to the comic book origin film “Joker.”
The film could easily win Best Picture following its Best Motion Picture – Drama win at the Golden Globes, but could just as easily fall into the same trap other technically profound films like “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” did at the Oscars, winning in many smaller categories but missing out on the top prize.
There’s absolutely no reason to see “1917” on anything less than the biggest, best screen imaginable – even if that means avoiding closer theaters. A visual marvel unlike any other, “1917” requires a grandiose, epic cinematic experience to match the vastness of the film itself.