“1917”: At war as at war *** 1/2

“1917” takes the halo of its recent award for best dramatic film at the Golden Globes, its nine British BAFTA nominations and its great chances of doing well at the Oscars. With good reason: the immersive drama of Sam Mendes describes with (almost) unsurpassed virtuosity the warmongering madness of the trenches during the First World War.
In war as in war: in order to reproduce the intensity and stress of the confrontations, Mendes and his director of photography, the legendary Roger Deakins, conceived the film as a two-hour long sequence shot. This is not really the case, but not far away.

In a ballet set to the quarter turn and extremely well choreographed, the spectator passes from the smoky trenches to the battlefields plowed by the shells to a village ravaged by combat.

The director of American Beauty and Skyfall was inspired by the stories of his grandfather, a veteran, to narrate this race against the time of two young British soldiers on the Franco-German front.

On April 6, 1917, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) were given a suicide mission. They must cross no man’s land and the German lines to warn the 2nd battalion – in which is Blake’s brother – that his 1600 men will fall into an ambush the next morning. Nine miles (15 km) of a course strewn with pitfalls and surprises…

The scenario thus respects the rule of three units – of time, place and action – which reinforces the verisimilitude of the story. This does not prevent certain far-fetched moments that make us drop out (the undetected presence of a baby near German soldiers, for example).

The invasive music, which highlights key moments in big strokes, is also a source of annoyance. This desire to arouse emotion thus provokes the opposite, especially in an unfolding which, curiously, does not generate much. As if the mastery displayed kept the viewer at a distance …

On the other hand, from the start of the journey to the end, the intensity does not suffer from any breathlessness. The few moments of respite, pretext for anecdotes, are quickly interrupted by the reality of the war. Because lowering one’s guard can have tragic consequences …

With this film, Mendes abundantly illustrates the absurdity of the battles of the Great War and its broken faces. The fear it induces, the homesickness and the cruel absence of loved ones are reflected here and there, but also the heroism, courage, solidarity and self-denial of its two main protagonists.

At the option of their meetings, they will briefly meet general and colonel interpreted by stars: Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others. But the performance medal is awarded to George MacKay, terribly convincing throughout the story in an extremely physical role.

In a few words: go for the best director awards, but for the best film, there have been better than 1917 in the last 12 months …

In the credits

Rating: *** 1/2

Title: 1917

Genre: War drama

Director: Sam Mendes

Actors: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong

Classification: 13 years +

Duration: 1h59

We like: the virtuosity of the production. The realism of the trenches. Sustained tension.

We don’t like: exaggerations. Lack of real emotion.

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