1917 – Film Review

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.

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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.

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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.

The Wife – Film Review

The silly takeaway from this film is that winning the Nobel Prize for Literature seems pretty lame.  A life’s work given the greatest nod of approval is essentially a jet lag poisoned trip where you’re bothered by intruding sycophants the whole time.  That would be the silly take, but not a false one.  The Wife is directed by Bjorn L Runge, and is based on the novel of the same name by Meg Wolitzer.  It’s about, unsurprisingly, a wife, played by Glenn Close, who is questioning her life choices after her husband (Jonathan Pryce) wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.  They travel to Stockholm, so that he can receive the award, and with them is their son (Max Irons) – a struggling writer, living in his father’s shadow.  Creeping behind them, desperate to write the prize winners biography, is Christian Slater’s Nathaniel Bone, a man poking the fire for a story.

From the beginning, Joan’s (Glenn Close) struggle is recognisable.  It’s a burning resentment that is not a new thing in her life, you can see it in her eyes.  And at first it’s a simple notion of being pushed to the background, seen as the leaning post for the genius husband.  It’s not jealousy, but melancholy for years spent being a crutch and a kiss on the cheek as she passes through the study.  This is what I was expecting for the rest of the film, and almost sitting in sympathy for Pryce’s character also.  He’s a brilliant writer, a proud father, and a loving husband – he shouldn’t feel guilt for his wife’s underlying un-fulfilment?  His level on the scumbag scale and the faults of the characters is something you should discover on your own, and the discoveries work.

Seldom do plot developments enhance the complexities of characters, however The Wife is a film where they do.  Suddenly the father/son relationship is in a far deeper mess – beyond seeking fatherly approval, or an attempt to disconnect nepotism.  So go see the film, and enjoy this weight of revelation that the director throws at you.  And Lunge is careful with his projectiles, holding them off until the right moment, coming as trebuchet rocks destroying a castle when they arrive.  The use of that purple metaphor is because the film certainly has its big moments – Oscar screams they could be described as.  Thankfully the performances are superb, and the explosions are engaging because of them.  What can I say about Glenn Close that hasn’t already been said?  This performance is a game of repulsively beautiful 3D chess, a jump on an elevator to different floors in Hotel Psyche.  To quote the film: “She brings out the stillness and the noise.”  The STILLNESS and the NOISE, the RISING ANXIETY and the VOMIT OF EMOTION.  She’s terrific, and when she takes best female actor at the Academy Awards I’ll be watching in glee.  Pryce tackles her well, and on a character level is not a serious match for the tranquillity of Joan, or his disturbed son – something Pryce nails, where he presents those sad inadequacies.  Special mention to Christian Slater, who was probably thrilled at the opportunity to do some actual acting, something he’s quite skilled at.

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So what comes of this slow rise to a satisfying denouement?  A nuanced experience, softly photographed and precisely written.  Screenwriter Jane Anderson converts the novel to be a full frontal message, which is impactful despite its lack of thematic ambiguity.  In fact, scratch that, the film manages to be both transparent and open-ended, due to a final interaction between Slater and Close.  If you can’t tell, I loved the movie, and connected to it a great deal.  The flashback scenes of young love, competitiveness, inefficiency and some hopelessness hit close to home, and give a sense to the history of the characters.  It’s one of those where the players have more to tell, and have more going on between the scenes that we never see.  Watch the film to see an attentive director capture the essence of human relationships through brilliant acting, and hopefully the film will stay with you when the point of the film becomes crystal clear.

 

Worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes, fuck Venom, and go to your smaller cinema and catch this before its run ends.

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