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.
José’s seen it once and returns to its depths for a second time, alongside Mike, who knows nothing about it. Chinese writer-director Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, unrelated to Eugene O’Neill’s play, tells a story that flashes between memories of a love lost long ago and present day reality, culminating in an hour-long single take that moves through an entire mining village.
It’s a film that oozes feelings of loss and nostalgia, the protagonist’s return to his hometown seeing him wander through dereliction and abandonment, where his life was once vital and exciting. The noirish flashbacks are sumptuously composed and lit, romantic and evocative; one sinks into those gorgeous images.
The long take that comprises the film’s second half is less successful, an exercise in form that leaves longueurs and attracts too much attention to itself. But its relationship to the first half is intriguing, its symbolism readily apparent if difficult to interpret, and its technical accomplishment unquestioned. (We didn’t see this version of it, but it’s entirely in 3D, which we can only imagine heightens its fluid, magical tone.)
Despite José’s criticisms, it’s one of his films of the year, though for Mike its qualities don’t offer enough to counterbalance a second half with which he really struggled. But it’s certainly worth your time, and if it’s showing near you, you should catch it.