On Tuesday 14th January 2020, I watched ‘1917’, the Oscar-nominated film by Sir Sam Mendes. The next day, I sent this email to ‘Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review’ – “The BBC’s flagship film show”, known to its army of fans as “Wittertainment”. If you’re familiar with the programme, you’ll be aware of a) the conventions of the letters they receive and b) the fact this one did not get read out. If you’re not familiar with the show, you’ll have no idea whatsoever why I’m taking this opportunity to say ‘Hello to Jason Isaacs’.
On with the email…
Dear Triple Alliance and Triple Entente,
I’ve been looking forward immensely to watching ‘1917’ ever since I first saw the trailer, several months ago (back when it was the work of plain old ‘Mr. Mendes’) and, like many others, I was particularly struck by the revelation that the whole film is played out “in a single shot”. As an admirer of his last notable example in the oeuvre (the opening sequence of ‘Spectre’), it seemed an impossibly bold ambition for a mainstream action film to have; one that would have to be seen to be believed.
Tonight, I went along with my Mum and my 15yr-old son to the local complex to see if the film could possibly live up to, not just its own considerable hype, but also a level of expectation commensurate with its now double-Golden-Globe-winning, ten-times-Oscar-nominated status. Bitter experience has taught me not to expect anything so exalted so readily and I sat down with my code-transgressive nachos (eating them compliantly quickly, before the trailers started), steeling myself for a certain level of inevitable disappointment.
I needn’t have been so cautious. Barely a few trenches into our heroes’ mission, I felt quite able to ‘pack up my troubling concerns in my metaphorical kit bag and smile, smile, smile’ – except when I wasn’t grimacing, jumping or otherwise emotionally investing. The accuracy of period detail seemed incredibly high, a task made all the more difficult – and necessary – by the fact that so many 2020 film-goers who watched ’They Shall Not Grow Old’, in 2018, are now far better informed of the most intricate elements of this century-old period in time.
At times, I must confess the ’continuous shot’ schtick did feel more like a burden than a device – I occasionally found myself unable to forget about its existence, waiting for the next cleverly-masked transition or spending more time thinking ‘how did they do that?’ than, I’m sure, would otherwise have been the case. I then realised that even these distractions were not that different to the ‘what-have-I-seen-this-actor-in?’ kind of reactions that can impede the suspension of disbelief in any film. Perhaps a second viewing would see this effect lessened.
Eventually, I was able to ignore the technical appreciation enough to inhabit the world with the characters – ironically, just as the technique is designed to encourage. The experience was, at times, not that dissimilar to watching someone playing a ‘first-person shooter’ video game – which I’m sure would add to the level of peril and investment for many viewers. Another point to make is that the ‘real-time’ plot delivery necessarily requires more exposition, which I found I could forgive more easily than I would for a more conventionally-edited film.
Given its specific slice of time, the film noticeably comprised a rich tapestry of landscapes, colours, settings and textures. The twists were well-disguised and profound and, even when the MacGuffin quest had reached its conclusion, there was still time for one last revelation to encourage a reappraisal of the whole thing.
Perhaps a less generously-spirited review may suggest this is a film that’s a little too clever for its own good. However well acted and choreographed, It’s possible a more orthodox telling of the story would have felt less obtrusive in many ways – but it’s also likely that it would also have made for just another war movie. Ultimately, I felt relieved that the boundaries were challenged and that Sir Sam was fully justified in making such an audacious production constraint his hill (or should that be ridge?) on which to die. As The Good Doctor has often said: “I’d rather see someone try – and fail – than not try – and succeed”.
I’m not sure it’s the best film I’ve seen all (Oscar) year – ‘Joker’ asks more profound questions and answers them more adroitly – but it’s certainly deserving of its ‘Best Film’ nomination for realism and ambition alone. All in all, we all agreed it was a fine use of two hours and, like many of the best film-going experiences I’ve had in recent years, the ability to say I wasn’t disappointed was all I’d hoped for – and the most pleasing thing to be able to confirm.
Paul Bentham BSc.(Marketing), tea drinker Emeritus.