Sam Mendes' World War I movie 1917 may have just emerged as an Oscars frontrunner, if early reviews are anything to go by.
Astonishingly, the movie gives the illusion of being filmed in one long, unbroken shot by Mendes and regular cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall; Blade Runner 2049). The mood is therefore immersive, unbroken and unflinching, as two young British soldiers are sent behind enemy lines to deliver a message warning of an impending German ambush.
Pride's George MacKay and Game of Thrones' Dean-Charles Chapman portray the squaddies entrusted with this extraordinary mission. The movie is inspired by the story of Mendes' grandfather and aims to rewrite the rulebook on the cinematic depiction of trench warfare.
Writes Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter: "Even if the film is mostly hitting familiar notes in terms of story and theme, it expresses a concise, focused and expertly managed vision with which there’s little to quibble, and the extraordinary style represents the fruition of a long-imagined dream on the part of many directors and cinematographers. From now on, when the discussion turns to great works of cinematography and camera operating, 1917 will always have to be high on the list."
"Astonishing as his filmmaking can be at times, it's Mendes' attention to character, more than the technique, that makes 1917 one of 2019's most impressive cinematic achievements," raves Peter Debruge in Variety. "In the two hours ahead, Mendes will follow the pair into the realm of nightmares, depicting WWI as we’ve never seen it: simultaneously horrific and beautiful, immersive and detached, immediate and impossibly far removed from our own experience."
Empire's Alex Godfrey states: "Clearly Mendes wants the camerawork to immerse us in the action, and it does. The camera ducks and dives gracefully, swooping around balletically — it may often be one long shot, but it’s never static, never boring. You can only imagine the choreography involved. Although 1917's filmmaking very much brings attention to itself, it's an astonishing piece of filmmaking, portraying war with enormous panache. This is big-screen bravado, and then some."
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw lauds the movie with a five-star review. "It is immersive, yes, but that dangerously overused word does not quite convey the paradoxical alienation that is being created: the distance, the pure strangeness. The two men’s experiences are bizarre and shocking, but a poignant and then tragic sympathy is finally dredged up from the mud of their ordeal.
"1917 is Mendes’s most purely ambitious and passionate picture since his misunderstood and under-appreciated Jarhead of 2005. It’s bold, thrilling film-making."
"1917 is filmmaking at its best and most piercingly alive," writes Johnny Oleksinski in The New York Post, who describes the movie as a "classic". He adds: "Next time your pessimistic friend tells you there’s no reason to leave the couch anymore, drag them straight into the car and go see this."
"While there are moments of poignant writerly grace to be found in 1917, the main attraction—if you can call it that—is the film’s suspense-filled race through the hell of war," writes Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair. "It’s a dazzling technical achievement, offering much of Mendes’s typical aesthetic splendour, but reined in perhaps just before the horror is drowned in too much lushness."
Nevertheless, several reviews observe that the film's technical achievements tend to overshadow the storytelling. Writing for The Daily Telegraph, Robbie Collin is somewhat less enthusiastic than his peers: "The conflict feels more like a video-game – a series of increasingly difficult and hair-raising challenges that have to be surmounted in order, interspersed with thin scripted encounters with various non-player characters...
"Let there be no doubt that everyone involved with 1917 gave their all to the exercise. But its ultimate status as an exercise is, likewise, without doubt."