Throughout film history, the long tracking shot has always been a flashy technique that garners a lot of attention and plaudits, so the next logical step is of course to shoot a film entirely in one take. There have been various attempts over the years, whether it be a genuine one-shot effort like Sebastian Schipper’s German thriller Victoria or something edited to look like one-shot, like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope or recent best picture winner Birdman. Sam Mendes’s new war film 1917 falls into the latter category, using long, continuous takes and stitching them together in the editing room so the film looks – and feels – like it’s happening in real time.
This is a big achievement no doubt, particularly given the relatively action-heavy nature of this first world war-set film, and with cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, the film is often stunning to look at. The whole purpose of this type of camerawork is immersion, to put viewers right on the battleground with the characters so we can feel the relentless horrors of trench warfare. The problem is, when the technique is so ostentatious and attention-grabbing, it becomes more distracting than immersive and that is often the case here. It may only be a problem for cynical cinephiles, but it’s hard not to end up following the camera as it swoops and spins through trenches, across fields, and in and out of French farm buildings, rather than engaging with the themes, characters and story.
It doesn’t help that the plot here is paper-thin, a generic men-on-a-mission narrative following two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they trek across rural France to deliver an important message to another battalion. Both McKay and Chapman give engaging performances with the material, but there isn’t much for them to do for large stretches of the film, other than deliver some perfunctory banter as Mendes’s camera follows them from one set piece to another. It all feels a bit like a video game; there are even cut scenes thrown in, with various big name British stars making distracting cameos to stoically dispense exposition in typically stiff-upper-lip performances.
There are some scenes in here that work on a visceral level and the imagery Mendes and Deakins create is often visually arresting, particularly a sequence set among ruins that’s lit only by the light of flares overhead, giving it an eerie, nightmarish quality. But beyond that, there is little to grab onto here; as a technical achievement, the film is a success but as a piece of storytelling, 1917 ultimately has nothing new or interesting to say about the horrors of war – the first world war in particular – that hasn’t been said many, many times before.