An event movie sold as much on its behind-the-scenes technical challenges as its story and genre, 1917 uses invisibly stitched long takes to convey the experiential fluidity of an overnight mission in World War I France, wherein two soldiers must hand deliver a message to the British front line to call off an offensive that will play into a German ambush. Mike is suspicious of films that market their filmmaking; José dislikes the work of director Sam Mendes.
So it’s with some relief that 1917 really rather impresses us. It’s a beautiful film, evocative of both the human cost of war and pastoral serenity of the landscape in which it takes place. Its symbolism, something José derides as overly simple and obvious in Mendes’ work, here functions quite well (if similarly unsubtly); its supporting cast of British and Irish stars is used well, Mark Strong and Richard Madden in particular shining during their brief scenes. And we consider the film’s similarities to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a similarly expensive war epic about avoiding disaster, rather than boasting of success.
In ‘High Sparrow; the third episode of Game of Thrones S5, the series continues to impress by the conscious expressiveness of its mise-en-scène, the way that it creates a sense of place of where the action happens that is tied to a mood the work wants to convey that in turn expresses meaning, partly through the use décor, costuming and lighting on its own, partly through a more overt symbolisation of those elements.
Place is of course central –Winterfell, Castle Black but also and more specifically the Gladiatorial Coliseum of Meereem, the House of Black and White in Braavos, etc. Each place is tied to one narrative thread; it is symbolic of a home, a kingdom, and is itself sometimes a pawn in a struggle for dominance. I will come back to this in a later post and demonstrate how each of these places and thus each of these narratives is visualised for us to evoke, express and also to narrate. But for now I just want to indicate a few things that caught my eye in the third episode.
The episode is called ‘High Sparrow’ because this is where we’re introduced to the character played by Jonathan Pryce but it seems to me that it’s as much about marriage, the promise of its surface, the lack of agency those it is offered to have in its acceptance or rejection, the threat the state of matrimony poses to the newlyweds and those they are newly allied to. And all of these elements it seems to me are symbolised in the still below:
Cersei’s son Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman) is marrying Margaery Tyrrell (Natalie Dormer), a much desired union politically. But what’s symbolised by the shot is the horrible ramifications such a union will have on the status of Cersei (Lena Headey) and thus on the power that she will wield; will she now be known as Queen Mother or Dowager Queen? or perhaps, hopefully soon, Queen Grandmother? is Margaery’s taunt to Cersei. Each of those is a step closer to political irrelevance; and the need for Cersei’s plotting to involve the High Sparrow in order to control any such new re-distribution of power and to maintain her hold is perfectly symbolised by the shot. What’s important is not the marriage per se, but the affect of that marriage on Cersei, and the steps she will put in motion to ensure she will be the focus and centre of power in spite of Margaery now having much closer and much more intimate contact with the King than any mother could. Cersei will try her best to do her worst and cause that union to fade.
The use of a shift in focus is also made very expressive in the scene in which Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) gives Jon Snow (Kit Harington) his opinion of what he should do with Ollie (Brennock O’Connor) sitting behind and looking on. It’s an intimate scene, just the two men and the boy, with the shots alternating between those of Jon Snow filmed largely from below in medium close-up and those of Davos and Ollie, with Davos in the foreground and Ollie behind. Note how when when Davos first asks Ollie to recite the oath — ‘how does the Night Watch’s Oath go again? I bet you’ve got it memorised since you got here’ –the scene places Davos in the foreground but fixes the focus on the young boy, an indication that what the oath signifies will become more and more meaningful as the series progresses. Then when Davos tells the boy not that bit, the bit at the end, and the boy begins to recite, ‘I am the Sword in the darkness, the watcher on the walls, the shield that guards the realms of men’, that shot is filmed in depth so that Davos and the boy are both in focus though the composition favours Davos who is foregrounded. Then when Davos himself repeats, ‘the shield that guards the realms of men’ Ollie is shown completely out of focus. Attention is now on Davos as his listening underlines the meaning of those words for the audience; and the significance of those words, and the repercussions they portend, is then shifted by a cut onto Jon Snow, shown the more powerful by being shot from below, so that he can turn those words to action. Here something as simple as a shift of focus is rendered very meaningful and expressive, something characteristic of the series.
The last scene that grabbed my attention (see clip below) is the one where Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aiden Gillen) standing on the edge of a precipice with Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), grabs her face with his hands and tells her: ‘There’s no justice in the world. Not unless we make it. You loved your family: avenge them!’They’re wearing black capes, the hill behind them is wintry green, The wind is blowing a banner on the right bottom of the frame indicating that they’re on official mission, the personal is political here, she looks at her old home — and though everything in her fears and revolts agains the notion, now her future one — and as Littlefinger is foregrounded smiling and about to head on his way, we see Sansa with his back to him and to us contemplating the black ruins of her past and her future, on that precipice and below tumultuous low-hanging clouds. Littlefinger smiles as they ride off, his mission accomplished, and the the camera pans left through the black, burnt, war-torn ruins of her past and future. But as we’re shown the horses riding towards the ruins of Winterfell, the camera moves past them only to settle on two other people on a horse, Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) and her squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) thus linking the fate of one to the other, linking one story to the other through a now shared landscape, and by mingling them perhaps offering the viewer a bit of hope that Sansa knows nothing of yet. It’s brilliant filmic storytelling.