★★★★½ - STUFF
- After pulling double 007 duty in recent years, the recently knighted Sir Sam Mendes returns to non-Bond cinema with a bang.
The British director, who burst onto the cinematic scene with the audacious American Beauty two decades ago, has crafted another compelling tale, which combines devastating drama with stunning visuals and bravura storytelling techniques.
It's April 6, 1917 and World War I rages on. Some of the British forces on the frontline believe they may have the huns on the run, but recent aerials reveal a very different picture. So while a push has been planned, commanders are now having to hurriedly change tack. However, the only way to get the message there in time is by foot.
Enter Lance-Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). Armed with maps, torches, grenades and "a couple of little treats", they are charged with a race against time to traverse the nine miles to the 2nd Devon Regiment, where Colonel McKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is itching to go over the top. If all goes to plan, they should meet little resistance – even in No Man's Land – on their journey, but fail to get there before the whistle blows and 1600 men, including Blake's brother, could be lost.
Like Sir Peter Jackson's superb documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, 1917 is inspired by the exploits of the film-maker's grandfather in "The Great War". Mendes says the story (co-written with Penny Dreadful's Krysty Wilson-Cairns) was based around a "fragment" Alfred Mendes told to him.
It also has echoes of Dunkirk, War Horse, Blackadder Goes Forth and – most notably –Peter Weir's Gallipoli, as our two messengers negotiate mud, barbed-wire and disillusioned and disbelieving officers.
But while the story itself is engrossing, Mendes elevates it to another level by making it seem to play out in real-time and via a single, continuous shot. By tracking Blake and Schofield every step of their journey, he places the audience right in the centre of the action, as they navigate the dizzying maze of trenches and face increasingly grisly sights at every turn.
Coupled with the use of low angles (Mark Strong is introduced via his boots) and visceral, grimy production design, you really feel like you're getting down and dirty along with the increasingly desperate duo. That also does mean it has a slightly stilted, theatrical feel to proceedings, perhaps naturally given how co-ordinated production would have had to be, but the breathless action, excellent sound design and Thomas Newman's urgent driving score ensure this is very much a cinematic spectacle.
As well as terrific performances from Game of Thrones' Chapman (Tommen Baratheon) and Sunshine on Leith's MacKay, look out for memorable cameos from everyone from Colin Firth and Richard Madden to Fleabag's "hot priest" Andrew Scott.
A war film that will take you on both a physical and emotional journey, 1917 is likely to be remembered as one of the great movies of 2020.
- James Croot, STUFF
1917 opens 09 January Light House Cinema!