1917. George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq. Directed by Sam Mendes. 119 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong war themes).

A war movie with a unique hook, ‘1917’ is the latest film to successfully coax audiences back into cinemas by fully harnessing the power of the medium. Designed by director Sam Mendes and shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins to look like one continuous take, it tells the harrowing tale of two young British soldiers charged with delivering vital intel to a distant battalion. Anchored by George MacKay’s committed, empathetic performance and peppered with impactful cameos from a swathe of great-with-a-capital-G British actors, the film conveys the human cost of WWI’s brutal warfare with impeccable craftsmanship.

Based on a true story relayed to Mendes (who co-wrote the screenplay with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) by his paternal grandfather, the plot centres on Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay). Called into a field office on the Western Front by General Erinmore (Colin Firth), they are told that the Germans have undertaken a tactical retreat and have successfully lured the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment into a trap. When the “Devons” attack at first light the next day, they will be walking into a well-established, heavily fortified defensive line over three miles deep. If the offensive goes ahead, Blake and Schofield are told, they will be massacred.

With phone lines between their positions cut, Blake and Schofield are charged with delivering a message from General Erinmore to the commander of the Devons. With the lives of 1,600 soldiers, Blake’s older brother among them, resting squarely on their shoulders, the young men set off on their daunting journey.

After creeping through no man’s land (an exercise in sustained, nerve-shredding tension more intense than many horror films), the young men move from encounter to encounter in what was until recently enemy territory, compelled onward by the ticking clock. What transpires across these two hours highlights the breadth of harrowing experiences faced by the young men sent away from their homes to fight in these terrible conflicts. Their paths intersect with a downed German pilot, a passing British unit, a young French woman hiding in the ruins of Écoust-Saint-Mein (the film’s most meditative, ethereal moment), a raging river, and an enemy sniper (another masterclass in immersive, taut filmmaking).

The soldiers we follow and those they meet have not been defeated by their wartime experiences, but they have simply been mercilessly, brutally ground down. Schofield and Blake are friends, but there’s a weary irritation beneath their love for one another, their kinship degraded by the immense pressures of the conflict. Dean-Charles Chapman, best known for playing the boy king Tommen in TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’, makes Blake massively sympathetic, his boyish features and knack for laddish storytelling emphasising the character’s youthfulness. His easy-going charm works well across from George MacKay’s drawn but determined warrior, from whose stoic perspective the audience witnesses the film’s action. MacKay’s performance, which borders on silent for much of the runtime, is an impressive showcase of physical acting; without speech, he conveys a dignity, a competence and a desperation that lingers on after the final shot.

With MacKay responsible for much of the film’s action and emotion, moments of exposition or extra impact draw on a murderer’s row of British acting royalty and talented up-and-comers to deliver the goods. As General Erinmore, Colin Firth drips with gravity as he sends the protagonists out on their mission, while Andrew Scott’s scuzzy Lieutenant Leslie uses his detached, wry delivery to develop our heroes’ growing nervousness, juxtaposed against their tense, frightened mood. Mark Strong, appearing as Captain Smith, is a paragon of steely virtue and gruff kindness, though he too adds to the protagonists’ growing apprehension, warning them that “some men just want the fight”. Rounding out the prestigious supporting cast, Benedict Cumberbatch and Richard Madden co-star in the film’s narrative and emotional peaks respectively, and both deliver their requisite moments more than capably.

From its excellent supporting cast to its impressive technical conceit, experiencing ‘1917’ recalls watching ‘Birdman’, the 2014 black comedy-drama similarly shot to look like one continuous take. I was also reminded of the game that I found myself playing while viewing both movies, where I subconsciously began to look for their carefully hidden cuts. On both occasions, this diversion was soon abandoned, displaced by pure immersion in their propulsive, immersive narratives (an experience not echoed in Hitchcock’s similar ‘Rope’, which never quite transcends its cinematic innovation and endures more as a curio than a decent film).

This immersion is a special pleasure due to the meticulous craft on display, which evokes the period and the setting through astonishing design and cinematography. The trenches and battlefields are deeply visceral and immersive (you can almost smell the mud and the rotting bodies), evoking a sense of chaos that belies their careful design. Roger Deakins captures everything with genuine beauty, and looks set to win another Oscar for his work (remarkably, it would only be his second from more than a dozen nominations). Every shot reflects an artistry reserved for a special few films (he transforms the ruins of a village lit by flares into one of the most striking cinematic images of the last few years), but – strung together into one take – their effect transcends this handsome aesthetic to transport you into the war. His work is a success that no superlative can properly describe. Behind the images, Thomas Newman’s score is impeccably wrought, perfectly matched to the film’s terror and beauty. At its most tense, it delivers percussion-driven echoes of Lorne Balfe’s excellent ‘Mission: Impossible  - Fallout’ score, ratcheting up the sense of impending danger. But Newman also concocts some exquisite, character-driven themes, which drive home the humanity of the men at stake.

In 2019, record-breaking comic book movies attracted audiences with very different approaches, like telling the biggest story imaginable on the biggest canvas available (‘Avengers: Endgame’), or reframing well-known characters and tropes through a sober, character-driven lens (‘Joker’). It was an equally successful year for adult-skewing dramas, with titles as diverse as the South Korean black comedy ‘Parasite’, Rian Johnson’s playful whodunnit ‘Knives Out’, and Tarantino’s star-powered love letter to Tinseltown, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, breaking out on the big screen. ‘1917’ gets 2020 off to a similarly strong start by drawing on the unique capacity of the artform to tell a familiar story in a way that we’ve never seen before. Frankly, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see something quite like ‘1917’ again. A significant achievement.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out January 9.

Universal Pictures.

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