Chestertown Spy’s movie reviews are meant not so much as critical verdicts on the films, but to give movie fans an idea of what’s playing and whether they might want to see it – or give it a miss! Or to suggest a movie not your usual fare but which you might enjoy. If you decide to try a movie we review, just tell ‘em the Spy sent you!
It surprised a lot of pundits when the British movie 1917, which opened in the U.S. on Christmas Day 2019, took home two of the most prestigious Golden Globe awards on Jan. 5 this year. The film was recognized as Best Motion Picture – Drama. Sir Samuel Mendes won for Best Director. It has also received nine nominations for the British Film Award, including Best Picture. And it was chosen by the US Film Board of Review as one of the top 10 films of the year.
The film opened at Chesapeake Movies in Chestertown on Thursday, Jan. 9, so movie fans can see for themselves what impressed the judges. There’s plenty to be impressed by.
Directed, co-written and produced by Mendes, the movie is based on a true story his grandfather told him about his experiences on the Western front in France during World War I. The film was shot in England and Scotland over the summer of 2019, and released before the New Year to qualify it for the 2019 awards season. Critics’ reactions have been generally positive, citing the movie’s intense, realistic portrayal of the war. I really have only one criticism; the dialogue is sometimes hard to follow, especially in a few scenes where groups of soldiers are talking casually among themselves. The thick British accents are undoubtedly authentic, and likely a matter of pride to British viewers, but I found it frustrating to not understand what the characters were saying in those scenes. But it was just a few scenes.
The action takes place in the spring of 1917, when German forces in northern France performed Operation Alberich, a planned withdrawal to a more easily defended position, the Hindenberg Line. The withdrawal is considered by many military historians to have been a strategic success, allowing the Germans to concentrate more troops in a shorter defensive line. This “scorched earth” policy accompanying the withdrawal included relocation of more than 125,000 French civilians, leaving behind destroyed towns, roads and bridges, poisoned wells, and widespread mines and booby traps in the abandoned territory. The French and British made use of these events in anti-German propaganda, pointing to them as an atrocity against the civilian population. To this day, large stretches of France are uninhabitable, never recovered from the effects of the war. Every year unexploded mines from WW I are found.
The plot follows two young British soldiers (played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) who are ordered to deliver an urgent message to another brigade, calling off an advance after new intelligence discovers that they will be falling into a German ambush. We follow the two soldiers on an arduous journey on foot through No Man’s Land and other war-torn territory, where their adventures paint a graphic picture of the horrors of the war. We won’t give away any more of the plot, other than to note that there’s more than enough action to justify the label “epic.” Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch also have key roles.
I thought – and so did other audience members I spoke to – that it’s one of the best war films, if not the best, I’ve ever seen. Yes, it’s that good; full of intense action, powerful emotions, full of authentic detail, unflinching in its portrayal of the “war to end all wars.” As an unexpected bonus, it’s absolutely beautifully filmed.
That doesn’t mean that every image that appears on the screen is beautiful. This is a movie about an especially brutal war, fought in trenches and in No Man’s Land, the killing ground between them. The camera shows us dead bodies, both of men and animals. It shows the vermin that followed the armies: rats, flies, carrion-eating birds. It shows wrecked and burning towns, destroyed farmland, and the water-filled craters left after shelling. And it shows combat and its effect on the men involved, graphically enough to earn an “R” rating for violence and disturbing images. The language of the soldiers is occasionally coarse enough that parents may not want to take younger family members.
And yet there are beautiful scenes interspersed with all the violence. The film is set in spring, and we get to see the beauty of the landscape even after it has been fought over and bombarded by the guns of war. We see heroism and pathos along with the horror. One touching moment shows us a company of soldiers just before they are to go “over the top” with one of their members singing a plaintive folk song, “Wayfaring Stranger,” as the others listen reverently. There is much that is profoundly moving, yet there is little sentimentality in this movie–it makes no pretense of glorifying war. Every teenage boy who is enthralled with the idea of war needs to see it.
According to the theater manager, 1917 will be playing at the theater for two weeks, through Thursday, Jan. 23. Performances are at 1:00, 3:40, and 6:45 Sunday through Thursday, with an additional performance at 9:20 on Fridays and Saturdays. The movie runs just under two hours. The opening night performance was well attended, with the recliner seats sold out – it’s a good idea to get an advance reservations.
All in all, 1917 is a must-see for anyone, young or old, who appreciates thoughtful, well-crafted film making – although the unflinching portrayal of the war and its immediate consequences may be disturbing to some viewers. For info, show times, and official trailer, see Chesapeake Movies website https://www.chesapeakemovies5.com/movie/285242/1917-trailer-and-info
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