TV Reviews: Years And Years, And 1917 In Particular

January 15, 2021

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By BRUCE DENNILL

Years And Years / Created by Russell T Davies / 16LVPS

1917 / Directed by Sam Mendes / 16VL

 

Imagine an almost contemporary world in which politicians are unashamedly manipulative to meet their own ends – which have little or nothing to do with bettering (or even pretending to lead) the country they have had placed in their charge. Sadly, that hardly even qualifies as fiction any more, which makes a relatively realistic take on what could follow from such a position rather chilling. In Showmax drama Years And Years, a normal Manchester family (“normal” in TV terms – there are different ethnicities and sexualities involved, with an out-of-touch matriarch, an aggressive activist and a disabled person in the mix as well) is forced to do their best to adapt as technology, politics, the threat of war and various other crises play out in their native England and around the world. Each of the family’s members and their dependents and hangers-on processes what is happening in their own way, but being constantly in touch – they’re close, even as they bicker and disagree – they continue to add perspective and insight, as well as misdirection and confusion to the filter through which they collectively view what’s happening. Emma Thompson plays Vivienne Rook (if that surname wasn’t intentionally a Poe reference, it fits…), a smart but brutally outspoken personality who capitalises on her TV notoriety to insinuate herself into British politics, quickly working her way up, challenging and shocking the status quo as she goes. As the region’s politics change, so do the fortunes of the various characters, with banking, refugees and rapidly evolving artificial intelligence options being some of the major themes lifted from today’s newscasts and spun into an unfolding story that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off. There are regular twists, all effective enough to make your stomach lurch. An enormous, detailed narrative is packed into just six episodes, without it ever feeling like anything could have or should have been left out. Each character is given a full, interesting arc and, though different viewers will find specifics that they can particularly identify with, the writing and performances here ensure that you’re invested with the fate of the family as a whole and of its individual members. Years And Years, or something close to it, could happen. Parts of it have happened – or are happening – somewhere in the world. So, while you’re laughing at many very funny situations, or empathising with everyone from a confused teenager to a gay refugee, you might feel a steady, unshakeable forboding – a mark of the power of this storytelling.

 

The themes at play in war films will never be feel feeble – there’s simply no way to not react at all when confronted with the horror and humanity of people being forced to put their lives at risk, to pick just one angle. But the effectiveness of a broad premise can easily be compromised by cliches, which can be difficult to avoid in a genre that is so well developed. Sam Mendes is not a director given to taking the well-trodden path and, apart from choosing the less explored of the World Wars (in film terms, at least) in which to set his story for 1917, he makes a narrative decision – and takes a huge risk – in making the whole film (all two hours of it) a single, unfolding shot, or at least what looks like one, thanks to cleverly hidden cuts. The effect is overwhelmingly powerful, giving a small, dramatic story – two soldiers needing to deliver a crucial message to another army unit that is close by but reachable only by traversing some desperately treacherous territory – epic emotional power as the viewer is placed right alongside the two protagonists every uncertain step of the way. What might happen is just as horrific as what occasionally does in set-pieces made more disturbing by their accessible realness. The two young leads – George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman – are part of that authenticity, with their relative anonymity making their perspectives and reactions the focus of their stories rather than the actors’ reputations. There are cameos from bigger stars – Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbatch – but they are well-crafted and restrained, marking chapters in the overall chronicle rather being shoehorned in for marketing heft. As a result, because the shoulders bearing the bulk of the burden in this story are so narrow and unsteady, it’s perhaps easier to wholly identify with the stomach-churning awfulness, tragedy and waste of war in general and World War One in particular – and how those involved but subjugated by the ridiculous systems in place were directly affected. Potent, poignant and often distressing.

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