Last night I went back in time to the First World War, to watch the absolutely stupendous 1917. I’m not a huge fan of war films, though I like stories of ordinary people caught up in war, such as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War which was made into a series starring a very young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh (before they split up.) But the guns-and-poppies type of film, I’m not so keen on. But this is a whole other kettle of fish.
You probably know this already unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks, but the film is two hours, give or take, and it’s one shot. Just take that in for a moment: one shot. One. Shot.
The effect is stupendous. From the word go we are immersed in the trenches as the camera follows two young soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and the interestingly-visaged George MacKay) as they are sent on a mission into no-man’s-land. If it all sounds a bit Blackadder, it isn’t, neither is it Wilfrid Owen exactly, but an immersive experience as we follow the two through scrolls of barbed wire and dead tanks, round craters and over banks into the ghostly corpse-strewn landscape between the two fronts. They hole up in a barn for a while to escape fighter pilots overhead but when a plane is shot down it nearly ploughs into them. I won’t give the whole plot away except to say that as far as narrative technique goes it’s just about the most immersive film of its type I’ve ever seen; I spent half of it with my hand to my mouth. The action builds slowly, relentlessly to a climax and at the end of it I was as emotionally exhausted as the hero was physically spent. There are brief cameos from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch but this film is all about the ordinary soldiers and their journey. There’s an interesting video here about why it had to be one shot.
If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch.