It’s time once again to try your hand at predicting the 2020 Academy Award winners and heighten the Oscar Buzz!
Ster-Kinekor’s annual Oscar Buzz started with a red-carpet screening last week, featuring the Golden Globe winning war film 1917, directed, co-written and produced by Sam Mendes reviewed by DIANE DE BEER.
This is just one of the Oscar-nominated films currently on Ster-Kinekor screens along with finalist for Best Foreign Film, Les Miserables. There’s Renee Zellweger’s much rewarded turn in Judy, which has earned her another shot at Best Actress.
Jojo Rabbit, Ford vs. Ferrari, Little Women, Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite and The Irishman are all vying for the top honour of Best Film.
DIRECTOR: Sam Mendes
CAST: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay
SCRIPT: Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger Deakins
MUSIC: Thomas Newman
The reason we know so much more about World War 2 than World War 1 has much to do with movies. When the second one came round, movies were part of the equation. That’s a huge marketing tool and we’re still watching different versions today.
Another stumbling block was the static nature of World War 1. It was basically fought from the trenches, a much more difficult story to tell visually.
According to Mendes, this one had been with him a long time and had been waiting for the technology to catch up before it could be told. With the movie dedicated to his grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, whom he describes in interviews as a “great storyteller”, he grew up listening to the stories of a soldier who was a messenger for the British on the Western Front. In the meantime he was involved on a large scale with two Bond films, which prepared him for a work of this magnitude.
But then he made it even more difficult for himself. As a theatre maker first, he knows he has to engage his audience. This is done by bringing his two protagonists up close and personal to the action. In fact, the focus is constantly on the two young soldiers, Blake (Chapman) and Schofield (MacKay), two little- known actors who wouldn’t detract from, yet be the story.
In this one, the bit parts are played by star actors like Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch. And it works magnificently as you buy into this hair-raising task being given to the young lads with the additional impetus of the one’s emotional attachment with a brother being part of the bargain.
They have to warn a British commander that the retreat of the German army is a trap to draw them into what would be a massacre. There are no radios or any other way of getting this message to the troops, who will die in their thousands if the advancement isn’t stopped.
The drama is set and the action starts almost immediately with enough drama to keep everyone pinned to their seats. As the two young men travel as fast as they can on foot, we see the devastation they find along the way. There’s no missing the rats scuttling for food as seriously as the soldiers, and small details like flies circling a dead horse become part of the grim picture.
But these are minor. We might not have seen as many movies, but the casualty count of that war, about 40 million, rank it as one of the deadliest. Bodies become part of the visual journey as they appear absolutely everywhere.
This might not be a fighting movie as such, but war is always the narrative as the two soldiers are determined to do their duty for their fellow countrymen. It’s a story about the horror of war whether fought in the trenches or by drones, but it’s also about valour, making the right choices and not even considering the weight of the task if it means saving lives – even those of the enemy, on occasion.
Depending on which way you watch this, more than the movie itself, the making is quite astounding. But that has always been a Mendes trademark, think American Beauty but in this fighting landscape, perhaps Road to Perdition is more telling. It’s played like a theatre piece.
And in 1917, because of the way the story unfolds, the choices made, you are cast in the centre of the drama every step of the way.
There’s no glance across the hills on the other side to show the enemy lurking. If they can’t see it, neither can you. And that’s the real drama of the story which is constantly in a state of high tension as the two men make their way beyond enemy lines wherever this may be. It’s also the way it is shot, walking each step together.
The narrative sometimes runs away with itself trying to impose all the emotions found in waging a war. That’s impossible and it cannot but become mawkish where one wonders whether some of it really needed to be part of the story. The sentiment is understood, but the telling of it stumbles and falls.
There are a few such incidents, none of which was necessary. Sam Mendes is an extraordinary storyteller. His recent Lehman Trilogy on NT Live bristled with imagination and every decision he made contributed to the masterpiece.
Similarly here with the way the story unfolds and the many decisions he had to make about crucial elements in the dramatisation of this war-time epic. It is the story that is sometimes burdened with incidents added on to make a specific point which is already part of the narrative and the character.
The valour of these two men can never be questioned, even when they do it themselves. That they portray the best there is when it comes to sacrifice and serving your fellow human beings – even the enemy – is evident. A more stripped down version without some of the embellishment would have served the film better.
And yet, because of the way Mendes made the film, there are these two strands that run side by side and pique your interest throughout: on the one hand there is the story as it is told and on the other, the marvellous movie-making which is what earns him the accolades and statuettes I believe.
He holds you in the palm of his hand throughout. That’s a gift not many can claim. Sam Mendes has it in abundance and even when he doesn’t achieve it all, it’s still pretty spectacular.