The auteur theory is a concept that is worth overlooking, except for the rare cases of filmmakers where you can’t gauge their interests and obsessions through the films they make. Sam Mendes is one such case, with a wildly hit and miss back catalogue that doesn’t seem unified by any common idea. Up until Skyfall, it would be safe to assume that his theatrical background led him towards disparate character studies that served as actor showcases, but he’s now given into blockbuster bombast a world away from his stage origins.
With its one take gimmick, 1917 is the closest Mendes has got to replicating the immediacy of a theatre performance onscreen - even if the conceit has been manipulated so you’re only given the illusion of seeing actors respond to the drama in real time. But even with its personal story (loosely based on a story Mendes’ grandfather told him from World War I), 1917 feels like another director for hire gig for Mendes in a career defined almost entirely by doing just that. This is a post-Bond blank check project that emulates the structure of a video game, offering very little in the way of personality or intimacy beneath the exhilarating surface.
It is Spring 1917, and the First World War is raging. On the battlefront in Northern France, two young British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are given a life or death mission - to journey across enemy lines and inform a British battalion of 1,600 men about a German ambush that has been in the works for months. Not only is there a race against time, but an added personal dilemma, as Blake’s brother is one of the soldiers positioned there to attack the Germans, not realising they’re right where the Germans want them.
The story, pitched somewhere between the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth and a generic Call of Duty game, is effectively structured into levels. After receiving news of their mission, the two soldiers head off to the trenches and we see them battle different obstacles in real time - with a different British character actor appearing after every challenge to deliver exposition, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to that of a video game cut scene. I have to confess that I’m not the most knowledgeable person about video games (the last time I owned a console was the original XBOX, back in 2005), but it seems that even this is more knowledge than most, who have overlooked the laziness of this screenwriting conceit to hail 1917 as one of the year’s best.
One thing that is as good as advertised is Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Deakins is no stranger to beautiful imagery, but he has never been as bombastic as many of his peers - and that’s why his take on a “one take” movie feels more subtle and less showboating than it otherwise would. He tries to make the cuts between takes, that cinematographers usually try to mask to keep the conceit alive, as apparent as possible, understanding that this technical exercise usually proves distracting to audiences and gets in the way of the story. Unfortunately, with this removed, it just exposes how lazily conceived the story itself is, transforming an awe inspiring tale into something that feels like it was written for the Playstation, not the cinema.
Yes, there are several exhilarating, heart racing moments, building to a third act where the race against time becomes so gripping, my hands started reflexively reaching for a games controller that wasn’t there, just to make Mackay’s character run faster through enemy lines. But I can’t fully fathom the ecstatic praise; the heart of the story has been simplified to compliment the relentless action, and considering the only constant of Mendes’ earlier work was in creating environments where his actors could let their performances breathe, it’s hardly playing to his key strength as a filmmaker. Again, this is largely a flaw of the one take conceit - it’s difficult for actors to get under the skin of characters when they’re merely constructs designed to shepherd us from one battleground to the next.