1917 review

For F*** Magazine

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast : George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker
Genre : War/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : PG13

1917-posterHollywood has made many World War II epics, but not quite as many World War I movies, likely because of America’s increased participation in World War II compared to World War I. Still, there are several movies set during the Great War which are considered masterpieces, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Sam Mendes directs and, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writes this relentless war film that takes place over two days in April 1917.

In Northern France, British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with a vital and seemingly insurmountable mission: they must deliver an order from Army Command to tell a battalion of 1600 soldiers to stand down from an assault, as a trap set by the Germans lies in wait for them. Schofield and Blake must cross No Man’s Land into treacherous enemy-controlled territory to deliver the message in time. For Blake, the stakes are personal too, as his older brother is among the soldiers who will die if this information is not conveyed. Braving enemy gunfire and the elements, Schofield and Blake bravely undertake the mission of their lives.

1917-George-MacKay-crawling-river

Filmmakers strive to achieve immersion, to make the audience feel so engrossed in watching the movie that they forget they’re doing so. 1917 achieves this. This is an awards season film, but unlike many prestige movies that vie for the Oscars and other awards, 1917 is far from a stuffy, airless affair. Mendes breathes life into the historical event, closing the 100-plus-year gap between World War I and the present day with an intense and involving epic. He was inspired by the stories of his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Trinidadian World War I veteran and novelist, which increases the personal investment Mendes has in the subject matter. The result is almost akin to a cutting-edge exhibit at a museum, not entirely unlike The Scale of Our War at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, an exhibit that tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign using oversized hyper-realistic sculptures.

1917-George-MacKay-running-night

There is an immediacy to 1917, but while the movie seems constantly gripping, it is also a masterclass in pacing – there are peaks and valleys, quiet moments and frenetic, intense ones, all carefully yet organically situated within the story. This is a movie that effectively essays anxiety, with the throb of Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy score signalling dangers around every corner. Several set-pieces are among the most visceral and thrilling of any war film in recent memory, yet Mendes executes them with just enough restraint.

1917-Dean-Charles-Chapman-helping-George-MacKay-up

George MacKay anchors the film, with Dean-Charles Chapman right alongside him. The film doesn’t need much to make these characters feel compelling, and just a few interactions between the two establish who they are as soldiers and as people. MacKay is remarkable in the role, especially when the film calls for him to look exhausted and tired. Our two heroes are put through the wringer and face obstacles which are incredible but never implausible.

1917-Dean-Charles-Chapman-George-McKay-German-plane

There’s not a lot that doesn’t work here. Some reviews have cited the lack of character development as a flaw, but this movie is focused on the experience of the characters and on putting the audience in their shoes, and doesn’t need a lot of back-story or a heartfelt monologue about their childhood to accomplish that.

1917-Colin-Firth-1

One element of the film that is possibly distracting is its big-name supporting cast. The structure of the movie means that actors like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott show up for roughly one scene each. They play people whom our two heroes meet along the way, meaning there is even less to them as characters than to Schofield and Blake. As such, it is possible that their appearances, which almost seem like cameos, might break the immersion, but this did not happen for us.

1917-George-MacKay-barbed-wire

Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, opened with a pre-credits sequence shot and edited to look like one continuous take. Mendes ups the ante here, presenting the entirety of 1917 as if it was filmed in one continuous take. This might sound like a gimmick, but the film deploys it as an excellent storytelling tool. The film’s first moment of violence is a small one – Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire. This reviewer winced more than he normally would, realising this is because the single take approach increases the subjectivity. Cutting away means retreating, however momentarily, to safety. 1917 offers no such safety.

1917-George-MacKay-jump

Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins can add yet another notch to his belt, and credit must also go to Steadicam operators like Pete Cavaciuti. Deakins also deployed remote-controlled cameras on wires, flying across the battlefield. Editor Lee Smith deserves plaudits too, as after a while, the game of looking for the hidden cuts becomes just too hard to play. The device of making the film look like it was magically filmed in a single take calls attention to itself because it is hard not to marvel at the technical mastery required to pull it off, and yet, it is also invisible, creating immersion rather than detracting from it.

1917-George-MacKay-trench-explosion-overhead

Summary: 1917 drops audiences onto the Western Front and is exciting, emotional and harrowing, its visceral impact the result of finely calibrated filmmaking. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, Sam Mendes crafts a masterpiece. 1917 captures the weariness, the adrenaline, the desperation, the horror and the sadness of war like few movies before it have.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

This Beautiful Fantastic

THIS BEAUTIFUL FANTASTIC

Director : Simon Aboud
Cast : Jessica Brown Findlay, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jeremy Irvine, Anna Chancellor
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 32min
Opens : 25 May 2017
Rating : PG

As Lady Sybil Crawley in Downton Abbey, Jessica Brown Findlay didn’t have to do much yard work. She’s making up for that in this comedy-drama, in which she plays Bella Brown. Bella is an aspiring children’s book author, who works in a library. She’s particular about keeping tidy, but not being an outdoorsy type, has never tended to the garden. Bella’s landlord gives her an ultimatum: get the garden in order, or get evicted. Bella’s cantankerous neighbour Alfie Stephenson (Wilkinson), who mistreats his housekeeper/cook Vernon (Scott), happens to be a gifted horticulturist. Alfie has great disdain for Bella because of Bella’s “crimes” against flora, but reluctantly agrees to help Bella clean up the garden, when Vernon quits because he’s tired of enduring Alfie’s abuse. Meanwhile, a young, absent-minded inventor named Billy (Irvine), who often visits the library to do research, catches Bella’s eye.

Writer-director Simon Aboud has pitched This Beautiful Fantastic as a contemporary fairy tale. Hardcore Anglophiles might be enamoured with this concentrated dose of twee – practically every review of this film will use the adjective ‘twee’. However, more cynical viewers will be painfully aware of how the movie is constantly tripping over itself in pursuit of charm and whimsy. It’s a pleasant film to look at and is ultimately a good-natured work, but the film cranks up the ‘adorkable’ factor to sometimes insufferable levels. The works of Roald Dahl appear to have had an influence on Aboud, specifically Matilda and Esio Trot. The “young person befriends grumpy old man” trope has been explored in the likes of Up and A Man Called Ove, with This Beautiful Fantastic delivering a largely typical take on that device.

Aboud does have a talented, likeable cast on hand, even if the characters hew too closely to recognisable archetypes. As the shy writer who would much rather get lost in a book than in the great outdoors, Findlay is fine. However, the character is defined more by her tics than by anything else. The prologue gives us Bella’s backstory, depicting her upbringing in an orphanage and establishing her Obsessive-Compulsive traits. It’s nothing to get worked up over, but the use of OCD to make a character seem peculiar but loveable is a tired device.

Wilkinson can play a curmudgeon in his sleep. He gets all the best lines, but it’s obvious that the crust which encases Alfie will gradually crumble away as the film progresses. The transformation he undergoes is all too abrupt, and while there’s meant to be tragedy behind why Alfie has ended up this way, these layers aren’t sufficiently fleshed out.

Scott seems miscast as Vernon, the awkward housekeeper and talented chef. Vernon is a beleaguered widower who has borne the brunt of Alfie’s invective so he can make a living and support his young twin daughters. Scott has made a name for himself playing supercilious, often sinister characters, and is unable to summon the unguarded sweetness that seems vital to a character like Vernon.

Then there’s Irvine, who seems to have stepped straight out of a sitcom. With unkempt hair, wire-rimmed glasses, a pencil tucked behind his ear, and barely balancing all his gear and books, all Billy is missing is a tattoo reading “nerd” inscribed upon his forehead. Irvine can be endearing, but is often annoying here – not obnoxiously so, but enough to be frustrated with. The love triangle between Bella, Vernon and Billy is not as big a part of the story as this reviewer feared, but still plays out as enough of a distraction from the gardening montages, which frankly aren’t all that interesting.

Instead of sweeping one up into a gently heightened world of wonder, This Beautiful Fantastic is at once too manufactured and too mundane to warrant complete surrender. It does not indulge in overt emotional manipulation and one can sense the earnestness behind it, but an excess of quirk and a lack of substance hampers the film from being the little gem it could’ve been.

Summary: This Beautiful Fantastic wants to be a delight and a curiosity, but even though it has its moments, the movie is too self-conscious and sometimes grating.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Denial

DENIAL

Director : Mick Jackson
Cast : Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Alex Jennings, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Biography/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG-13

denial-posterIn 2000, the U.K. saw one of the most explosive libel trials in history: Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz), an American historian, was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving (Spall). This film, based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier recounts the dramatic court proceedings. Irving, who contended that Hitler never ordered the genocide of Jews, claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him and damaged his reputation by calling him out on his claims. Lipstadt’s legal team is headed by solicitor advocate Anthony Julius (Scott), known for defending Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles. Representing Lipstadt in the courtroom is Richard Rampton QC (Wilkinson), a leading British libel lawyer. With Irving representing himself and Sir Charles Grey (Jennings) as the presiding judge, the high-stakes case draws the attention of the press and holocaust survivors alike.

denial-rachel-weisz-1

It might be tempting for jaded audiences to dismiss Denial out of hand as bog-standard Oscar bait. After all, it has respectable actors, most of whom are British, re-enacting true events centring on heavy themes. We’d implore you to set your cynicism aside, because this is a story worth telling. Each passing year puts more distance between us and the atrocities of the Second World War, but films like Denial rightly champion the relevance and value of remembering and learning about the Holocaust. Most viewers aren’t historians or lawyers, so it falls to screenwriter/playwright David Hare to adapt Lipstadt’s book into digestible morsels. The resulting film is engaging, easy to follow and even thrilling at the right junctures.

denial-rachel-weisz-and-andrew-scott

 

Director Mick Jackson’s body of work, including blockbusters The Bodyguard and Volcano, might not belie subtlety. However, Jackson did win an Emmy for directing the made-for-HBO biopic Temple Grandin. There are times when it feels that the technicalities of the trial have been oversimplified for brevity, clarity and dramatic license, but Denial never comes off as overwrought or condescending. There is an effort made to be faithful to actual events: all the dialogue in the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records. The sequence in which Lipstadt, Rampton and the legal team travel to Auschwitz to gather facts was shot on location and is appropriately haunting and sombre. The judicious use of brief flashbacks depicting the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp are a way for the reality to hit home without the film being emotionally manipulative.

denial-rachel-weisz-2

 

 

Weisz is an actress who effortlessly embodies fierce intelligence, and the Oscar-winner gets to sink her teeth into a wonderfully meaty role here. Lipstadt is characterised as a principled, serious academic, who doesn’t take kindly to being told she cannot stand up for herself and who baulks at being discouraged from testifying. Weisz is an English actress playing an American woman, surrounded by English actors using their natural accents, and is completely believable. In the English justice system, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, not the plaintiff, something which baffles Lipstadt. When Lipstadt clashes with her legal team, we’re rooting for her, and she’s not afraid to admit she was wrong when she realises the rationale behind their advice.

denial-timothy-spall

Seeing as this is based on Lipstadt’s first-hand account, it stands to reason that David Irving would be characterised as a thoroughly despicable man, but one could argue that he’s done a fine enough job of that on his own. Still, there’s a complexity to Irving’s views, however skewed, which gets skimmed over in Denial. Irving doesn’t dispute that Jews were killed by Nazis; he disputes that there was an executive order from Hitler specifically targeting Jews. As depicted in the film, Irving seizes on minutiae, distorting the facts to serve his ideology. He longs to be taken seriously in academia despite his views. It’s been said that it’s more fun playing bad guys, and Spall’s performance is evidence of that. Spall has an expressive visage, visibly relishing every second of hateful bluster and does a whole lot of indignant frowning.

denial-andrew-scott

While Scott may be better known for his villainous roles, he’s also fun to watch as Lipstadt’s steadfast ally. He’s composed but direct and keeps a stiff upper lip. Wilkinson’s Rampton looks at first to be a crusty curmudgeon and Lipstadt locks horns with him, but then we get one of the film’s best scenes, in which they cordially break bread and come to an understanding. As architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, an expert witness for the defence, Mark Gatiss turns in a quietly moving, thoughtful performance. Caren Pistorius also makes an impact in her relatively small role as Laura Tyler, a young lawyer on her first case. In her introductory scene, Tyler visits Irving’s house to deliver materials the defence has gathered, and glowers at him in disgust. Lipstadt later develops a heart-warming, almost maternal bond with Tyler.

denial-tom-wilkinson

Denial may not be the most searing or pertinent film based on a true story, but it is insightful and emotional all the same. Bringing history into the courtroom changes things up from your average legal drama, and its real-life heroine is one you’ll be cheering for throughout the film.

Summary: The court case at the centre of Denial is a tricky one to bring to life, but an able cast led by Rachel Weisz at her sharpest and a sound, cogent script make it a moving, thought-provoking piece.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong