Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict. It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen. The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.
It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer. That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening. Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth. The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of. And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land. This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them. Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.
The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film. It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting. Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water. It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches. Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line. Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie. This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film. In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious. Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act. Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.
Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers. This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime. Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring. The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it. George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor. It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.
The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness. It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it. The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it. Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger. The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not. Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.