A Walk in the Country
It is perhaps a sign of the magnitude of the psychic scar left by the First World War that we can't seem to stop making movies about it, even as the events themselves slide inevitably out of the realm of living memory. It seems to me that in recent years we've had more films about the First World War than the Second – the centenary of the conflict may have had something to do with this, of course, but I wonder if it isn't also to do with the way the two wars are popularly perceived: the Second World War was a 'good' or just war, a battle against an undeniably evil ideology. That kind of thinking feels odd in today's deeply cynical and morally compromised world, so perhaps inevitably we are drawn to a war which is generally regarded as a futile, pointless slaughter: industrialised murder with human beings treated as raw materials, an appropriate curtain-raiser for the modern age. I could always be wrong. Regardless of all that, here to join the ranks of First World War movies is Sam Mendes' 1917.
As you might be able to guess from the pleasingly numeric title (I say pleasing because it allowed me to walk up to the ticket desk and say 'One fo(u)r nineteen seventeen in two-D at two fifty in (screen) one' with a reasonably straight face) the movie is set in 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play two young British soldiers who are selected for a special mission and dragged in front of a general (Colin Firth). The assignment is not the cushy food-collecting detail they are hoping for. A failure of intelligence (whichever way you want to look at it) means that a battalion has been tricked into thinking an enemy strategic withdrawal is actual a retreat, and is about to launch an attack on what is actually a heavily-defended stretch of the German lines. A message has to be delivered halting the advance before nearly two thousand men are sacrificed. Blake (Chapman) is younger and keener and his brother is amongst the endangered troops; he is highly motivated to succeed in the mission. Schofield (MacKay) is older, more jaded by his experiences, less inclined to take risks. But orders are orders, even if it means a hazardous crossing of no-man's-land and a trek across territory where the Germans may still be operating...
The element of 1917 stressed most by its initial publicity was the decision to make it as immersive as possible, by creating a film which gives the impression of being a single very long take. There's a little bit of disingenuity and careful choosing of words going on there, not least because the story requires a very obvious break in the narrative at one point. You do find yourself looking out for the occasional moments when the two main characters pass through a pitch-black tunnel for a couple of seconds, or there's another moment where they're both out of sight and a sneaky digital edit could be done – in short, this isn't even trying that hard to look like a genuinely single-take picture.
I suppose this is comparable to what's happened to the special effects movie as a piece of cinema: advances in technology mean that doing a single-take movie (or apparently single-take movie) is much easier now than it was even a few years ago. When Hitchcock had a go, back in the 1940s, he was limited by the fact that film cameras could only shoot for ten minutes at a time, and Rope was structured accordingly (there's an 'invisible' edit every ten minutes or so). Genuine 'one take, no cuts' feature films still tend to originate from outside the English-speaking world – the Spanish movie Victoria got a release over here a few years ago and was (at over two hours) the longest example of the form at the time, while the Japanese spoof Don't Stop the Camera! also fleetingly appeared in order to send up the form in dazzling style – and even the 'cheat' version preferred by American film-makers is not especially common.
One wonders as to the extent to which the decision to film 1917 in this style was a creative one and how much the critical plaudits won by Birdman in 2015 (including, let's remember, a slightly controversial Best Picture Oscar) were an influence. In the end I don't think it really matters, because in the end it's not about whether this genuinely is a single-take picture, but the impact it achieves by appearing to be one. And the fact is that a few minutes into 1917 I was able to sit back and relax, confident that I was watching a very fine movie indeed (something I don't feel I get to do nearly often enough).
The performances by the two young stars are both very good – George MacKay has been doing quite big movies for a number of years now, and hopefully this will raise his profile even further – while the structure of the piece basically means a string of other actors turn up to deliver brief cameos, usually as British officers. Apart from Firth as a stern but benign general, Andrew Scott appears as a jaded lieutenant, Mark Strong as a worldly-wise captain, Richard Madden as a brother officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the man they're trying to reach (I hope that's not too big a spoiler). (It feels like I haven't seen Mark Strong in a movie for ages, but then at one point he was turning up in five or six films a year.)
Most of these actors, fine though they are, are to some extent playing stock types, and the film has no very new ideas to offer about the First World War – but what the style of the film does is to plunge you into the hell of the trenches and the landscape around them. It is as a visceral sensory experience that 1917 really functions, and as you stumble with the characters through booby-trapped enemy positions, with rotting faces jutting from mud walls and rats skittering everywhere, you get the faintest inkling of a sense of what it must have been like for the people who were really there. Did it have to be made this way? Well, probably not – there's a school of thought that we don't experience the world as a single take anyway; an eye blink is nature's version of a cut – but the thing is that it does work as a movie, making you understand and care. Someone who begins as an everyman becomes truly heroic by journey's end. Needless to say, it is often visually startling, as well as moving and technically accomplished. Not quite entertainment in the traditional sense, but still well worth watching, especially on the big screen.
Also This Week...
...Kristen Stewart plays the title role in Benedict Andrews' Seberg. I turned up to this knowing virtually nothing about it or its subject (Jean Seberg, a largely forgotten figure now, but at one time a major star, especially in France), and expected something slightly pretentious about the French New Wave. It actually borders on being another movie about the Plight of Black America: Seberg, seeking to be more than just a pretty face in dumb commercial movies, attempts to use her fame to advance the cause of civil rights in the USA (the film is set in the late 1960s) and gets involved with radical activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). This draws the attention of the FBI, and Seberg finds herself at first surveilled and later persecuted by them.
The story is an interesting one to begin with, but the movie feels unsure about how much of a thriller it's supposed to be. Certainly as it continues it becomes much more of a slow and introspective drama, and less engaging as a result. Stewart is as watchable as ever (let's just consign the Twilight movies to history and agree that she is a very interesting and capable actress), and there are some effective supporting turns, especially from Vince Vaughn – his transformation into a reliable character heavy is almost complete. If there is an irony in Kristen Stewart playing someone wanting to use their fame to do more than just appear in vacuous mainstream fare, the movie does not seem aware of it. In the end this feels slightly slow and is less engaging than you might hope, but it's watchable if only for the period detail.