DRAMA; 1hr 59min
STARRING: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman
Night terrors: MacKay
On April 6, 1917, Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake (a poignant MacKay and Chapman) are tasked by their commanding general (Colin Firth) with the apparently impossible: they’re to deliver a crucial message to British troops inside enemy lines. If they fail, 1,600 men stand to be slaughtered by the German army, wrongly believed to be retreating. Not only is such a mass death the worst possible prospect, but Blake’s brother is a member of the troops whom the corporals are trying to rescue, and the entire shebang is based in part on true tales of woe told to Skyfall director Sam Mendes by his soldier grandfather, Alfred Mendes, to whom the film is dedicated.
If war is a much-touted hell (about which there can be no reasonable doubt), then this immersion in it—filmed by cinematographer Roger Deakins and edited to play as one continuous, Birdman-esque take—unfolds as a living, Stygian death. Deakins’s camera is a third character in a trial by churned mud, blackened ramparts, severed limbs and hidden snipers, shadowing the two young men in a sinuous creep. Its immediacy shepherds the viewer beyond the safety of observation to a place of awful, visceral intimacy, as Mendes—with minimal dialogue and a grim economy of emotion—tunnels to the lower depths of endurance. For of course, there’s a fourth character along for the ride. Schofield and Blake are so vulnerable, and their objective so desperately dangerous, that death is beside them at every stumbling step. A world away from battlefield heroics, 1917 is a marathon of private suffering. Harrowing, tragic, humbling and heroically played out, at one startling point it even becomes infernally beautiful, when a shattered nightscape blooms in a wash of light into yet another hunting ground.