Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay in a scene from 1917.
Dean-Charles Chapman (left) and George MacKay in a scene from 1917.

MOVIE REVIEW: War epic puts audience in the line of fire


Four stars

Director: Sam Mendes

Starring: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Colin Firth

Rating: MA15+

Running time: 119 minutes

Verdict: Breathtaking drama


There's no way of telling whether it's a trap. All is suspiciously quiet on the Western Front when two young soldiers step out into No Man's Land, in broad daylight, on their General's orders.

Ankle-deep in mud, they pick their way through the rotting human and animal carcasses, anticipating a death-dealing sniper's bullet with each breath.

George MacKay in a scene from 1917.
George MacKay in a scene from 1917.

Such is the tension that one can't help but wonder whether that might not ultimately be a blessing, whether it wouldn't be better for all concerned if someone just put them out of their misery. But since we're 10 minutes into a two-hour long trek deep into enemy territory, it's clear that writer-director Sam Mendes doesn't intend to give his characters - or his audience - an easy way out.

Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are on a suicide mission.

And this groundbreaking piece of cinema aims to put us in their fetid boots.

Blake, a greenhorn, has been picked for the seemingly hopeless assignment because he is good with maps. He chooses a battle-seasoned Schofield to accompany him - before he knows what the job is - because he's his mate.

Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay.
Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay.

Against all odds, the British army's intelligence proves correct. The German troops have indeed abandoned the trenches for which they have fought for so long, although they have left a few nasty surprises, including a booby-trapped shaft.

So the two foot soldiers race against time across a post-apocalyptic landscape to reach a 1600-strong battalion (which includes Blake's brother) before it stumbles into a carefully-orchestrated ambush.

And the Oscar goes to ... 1917 represents an extraordinary technical achievement - elaborately choreographed moving camera shots give the impression that the World War I drama was filmed in one continuous take.

The smart money is already on cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to take home his second golden statuette (from15 nominations).

Colin Firth as General Erinmore/
Colin Firth as General Erinmore/

There are brief moments when the sheer virtuosity of his camerawork distracts us with a jaw-dropping case of the "how did they do that?".

But for the most part, the filming technique has the intended effect of immersing us in the soldiers' experience.

This is a deeply personal, highly subjective depiction of war (which arguably justifies its portrayal of German soldiers as faceless, uncomplicated villains).

It's grounded by strong, naturalistic performances from the two main actors - Captain Fantastic's MacKay, in particular, stands out.

A string of powerful cameos from the likes of Colin Firth, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch lends gravitas.

A fresh perspective on a familiar horror story.

Opens Thursday