Release Date(s)2019 (March 24, 2020)
Studio(s)DreamWorks/Reliance/New Republic/Neil Street/Amblin (Universal Pictures)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C+
April 1917. On the Western Front in northern France, the Germany Army has staged a dramatic retreat after weeks of furious battle with Allied forces. Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) intends to take advantage of the moment to strike the retreating Germans, thus breaking their will to fight. But all is not as it seems; British aerial reconnaissance has learned that the Germans have withdrawn to a heavily fortified line, hoping to draw the Allied forces out into a carefully laid trap. So General Erinmore (Colin Firth) sends two young lance corporals—William Schofeld and Tom Blake (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman)—on a desperate mission to deliver Mackenzie a message to call off the attack. Blake doesn’t hesitate; his own brother serves in MacKenzie’s regiment and will die if their mission fails. But Schofeld and Blake have just hours to get there… and they’ll have to cross the deadly “No Man’s Land” in broad daylight to do it.
Based in part on the personal stories of director Sam Mendes’ own grandfather, Alfred, who served in the British Army in WWI, the Best Picture-nominated 1917 is an extraordinarily moving and engrossing film. Co-written by Mendes and scribe Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), the film features an impressive supporting cast that includes Mark Strong, Richard Madden, and Andrew Scott (in addition to Cumberbatch and Firth). But it’s MacKay and Chapman (best known for How I Live Now and Game of Thrones) that ground the picture, and Oscar-winning cinematography by the great Roger Deakins that drives it. In order to enhance the experiential nature of the story, the film was shot in a series of very long takes, stitched together seamlessly to create the illusion of having no cuts. The actors and camera operators rehearsed extensively to coordinate their movements, and special techniques were developed or refined for moving the camera, including the use of dollies, handheld mounts, cranes, wire rigs over the set, and even vehicles—often all in the same take. But as striking and effective as the completed film undeniably is, there’s also no denying that it lacks for story. And logical-minded viewers may find themselves wondering: Why couldn’t Erinmore have sent a pilot to drop a message to Mackenzie instead?
1917 was captured digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 4.5K) using the Arri Alexa Mini LF camera (newly made and the smallest available with a large format sensor) with Arri Signature Prime lenses. It was finished as a native 4K digital intermediate at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio (1.90 for IMAX presentation, not included here) and graded for high dynamic range (Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDR10+ are all available here). The Ultra HD image is—in a word—spectacular, but it reveals its virtues by degree and over time. The film’s color palette is strongly muted, as you might expect of a WWI film—much of it takes place under overcast skies, in muddy trenches, or on gloomy battlefields. But the sheer variety and shadings of gray, blue, brown, khaki, and the odd splashes of green or dark red are remarkable. This is a film grounded in texture—mud, dirt, wool, leather, canvas, tin, brass—and the refinement of each is impressive. Shadows are deeply black, but never lack for detail, while the highlights are oppressively gloomy. The film’s nighttime scenes, set in the bombed out village of Écoust-Saint-Mein, are remarkable studies in light and shadow, always in motion for being lit by soaring aerial flares or building fires. There’s a bit of banding visible in the monotone skies in HDR10, particularly when Schofeld and Blake first cross No Man’s Land, but the extra two bits of Dolby Vision cleans this up nicely. In any case, this is very close to a reference quality 4K image, but not a showy one. It’s a symphony of subtleties infused with breathtaking moments of stark beauty.
The audio is available in English Dolby Atmos, along with French and Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus. The Atmos mix is a perfect match for the visuals, tremendously effective in conveying subtle differences of space and place. Panning and movement are smooth and constant. As the lance corporals creep across the abandoned battlefield, there’s an eerie stillness broken only by the ethereal tension of Thomas Newman’s score. Once they get to the German lines, and enter the tunnel system they find there, the environment sounds cramped and closed in. But when things go south on them inside, the resulting blast has crisp direction and an echoing report. Creaking beams can be heard all around the listening space as rocks fall and the earth itself rumbles and gives way above them. The height channels kick in for atmosphere and give key sequences more bite (including the collapsing bunkers, a brief aerial dogfight, sizzling overhead flares, and of course the climactic battalion charge. Again, it’s not a flashy mix… until it suddenly is. In those moments, there’s plenty of muscular bass and jarring clarity. Dialogue is crisp and clean, while Foley work and music are well blended into the soundstage. Note that optional subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish (but for the film only).
Universal’s Ultra HD release includes 1917 in 4K on UHD along with HD on a Blu-ray. Both offer the following special features (the video-based content in 1080p):
- Audio Commentary with director/co-writer Sam Mendes
- Audio Commentary with director of photography Roger Deakins
- The Weight of the World: Sam Mendes (4:49)
- Allied Forces: Making 1917 (12:01)
- The Score of 1917 (3:52)
- In the Trenches (6:59)
- Recreating History (10:25)
In terms of the extras, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the commentaries are phenomenal. The bad news is that the featurettes are not—just the usual B-roll and talking heads created by the promo team, totally lacking in perspective, comprehensiveness, and depth. To get less than 40 minutes of HBO First Look-grade fare for a film as interesting as this one is pretty disappointing. But back to those commentaries—Mendes and Deakins each get their own tracks and reward your listening time. It’s obvious from the start that this project was personal to Mendes. He talks about the characters’ journey, his choices of direction and perspective, and the themes and feelings he was trying to accentuate. We learn about the planning involved to achieve shots that appear simple (but were in fact incredibly complicated to stage). He also discusses the efforts of his cast and production team, offers an occasional bit of historical detail, and even touches upon some of the real war stories that inspired moments in the film. Meanwhile, Deakins’ track is a cinema tech nerd’s dream. The legendary DP talks you through every shot; how the camera was moved, the lenses he used (and the look it achieved), where all of the digital “blends” are and why they were necessary. He points out places where he made subtle adjustments to the camera iris, instances where the “in camera” elements were digitally enhanced. Both commentaries are packed with insights; each man has plenty to say, so the tracks never lag or suffer long moments of silence. Trust me, you’ll have a much deeper appreciation of the technical achievement of 1917 when you’re done. Finally, you get the usual Digital code on a paper insert.
1917 is a rare beast these days—a purely cinematic experience. It’s also an engrossing film, worthy of its Best Picture nomination. The video-based special features here are really disappointing, but the commentaries are gold, and the A/V experience is sublime. With cinematography this good, 4K Ultra HD is only right way to experience this film at home. Recommended.
- Bill Hunt