1917 **** Reviewed on ZANI

Written by Eddie Lazell
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This is a gripping, moving war film. It's full of amazing visuals, and the race-against-time premise gives it relentless narrative momentum, so it's worth seeing on a big screen with no interruptions, i.e. in the cinema.

Or if you're one of those people who insists that your high-end "home cinema" arrangements are wonderful, then also clear the time to sit through it without getting up for a beer or answering the phone or raising the children. Lock yourself in your Twatcave and submit to it. It's only two hours, which is mercifully short for a high-profile war film.

It's a quest film. A couple of British soldiers are given an urgent message to deliver, on foot through No Man's Land and bombed-out occupied France, to another regiment that is in terrible danger. (A couple of friendly hobbits from the shires are given an important ring to carry alone through desolate territory to a place in the east...I jest, but there is a theory that Tolkien's service in France informed The Two Towers. Everything comes back around.) And the camera stays with them all the way - it's filmed as one continuous take, we are permanently in front of our couriers, or behind them, or seeing their POV. It keeps up the momentum, because so much of the talking is done while moving, and at times has a videogame feel when trench walls are scrolling by either side with occasional characters pausing a moment to "interact". The performances are mostly very good, with lots of high-profile cameos from your Scott-Cumberbatch-Firth-Strong school of male British actors. War film expectations are nicely played with. It's a great concept, well executed. This is a positive review, ok? I say that because I am now going to niggle and bitch about minor things for several paragraphs. That's the way with four-star reviews. With three stars I tend to say what's good, whereas with four stars I tend to feel the need to justify the missing star.

1917 film ben batchcumber

The performances are mostly very good, with lots of high-profile cameos from your Scott-Cumberbatch-Firth-Strong school of male British actor

The music is too much, all the way through. It's very good music as music, but it's overused. At first it's modern horror-film style music, ominous subterranean throbs slowly shifting and building to create unease, and it works well while they're getting their orders and setting out and we're still guessing which of the duo will turn out to be the Frodo and which the Samwise. But once you get to the first climax of tension, in the abandoned dug-outs, the music should cut out, so that we hear (and don't hear) what the characters hear (and don't hear). Instead it got still louder - it didn't work for me, having POV visuals but cinema-style music mixed. I could have been groping in the dark with them, straining to hear something, but by this point the music gave me that more comfortable feeling of watching a horror film, aware of my cinema seat and that something was about to happen to someone else. And some opportunities for tension are missed - a Hitchcock would show us that tripwire *before* the characters notice it, and make us sweat for a couple of drawn out minutes while they stumble and tramp their way unwittingly around it, before one of them goes "Look, there's a tripwire". Sam Mendes may still be that little bit more of a creature of the theatre than the cinema.

While the acting and sets and cinematography and narrative are all strong, Mendes is not the world's greatest director of action sequences, as you may have noticed from his Bond films. Not that 1917 gives bad action at all, and there are a couple of surprises, but the sense of danger and suddenness doesn't quite rank with, say, the couple of good bits of Saving Private Ryan (although 1917 is better overall).

For a war film, 1917 is refreshingly light on machismo, sentimentality and hero-worship for the armed services. (That's WWI for you, right? Right-wing memes seeking to diss the youth of today always compare them with the freedom-and-sacrifice-loving youth of 1939, mysteriously never the freedom-and-sacrifice-loving youth of 1914.). The emotional moments, the losses, and the occasional gestures of kindness or hope in the darkness, they mostly worked for me and made me Feel Things, and I'm a horrible person with a lump of clinker for a heart. However, it's not completely tonally on target. There's a lovely bit of singing, as a soldier croons for a battalion preparing to go over the top, but the way every single soldier is sat cross-legged and attentive (even when a stranger walks around behind them!) is that little bit too much of a Disneyfied school assembly. I would have bought it more if several of the slumped soldiers were doing their own thing while their comrade warbled. It's also a shame that the Germans are somewhat dehumanised in this film - despite the family photo on an abandoned bunk, they are mostly defined by their plots and the destruction in their wake (but it was our wake too). And while the couple of lines of spoken French are subtitled, the couple of lines of German aren't.

All that said, when soldiers-who-happen-to-be-brothers feature in the exposition, your bullshitometer twitches in anticipation of some Saving Private Ryan mawkishness which, thankfully, mostly doesn't come. And a trailed encounter with the recipient of the urgent orders is...well...in a way, it goes as you'd expect. But it's not clichéd. What we're led to expect is not quite what we get. It's a nice scene.

Its UK certificate is only a 15, not an 18. There's not a huge deal of onscreen violence, although the state of No Man's Land is not pretty. If you have a 13 or 14 year old doing WWI in History or English lessons, I'd be tempted to sneak 'em in.

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Read 1763 times Last modified on Monday, 20 January 2020 09:57
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Eddie Lazell

Eddie Lazell

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