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1917

Year: 2019
Studio: Dreamworks Pictures
Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Sam Mendes/Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong

Everything you've heard about this movie is true. The cinematography and design are jaw dropping. It does look for all the world like a single shot (although even to the fairly unpractised eye you can see where they've cut).

Roger Deakins' much talked-about Oscar is well deserved. Some sequences are grimly realistic, such as when Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) first set off on their mission through no man's land, skirting huge bomb craters full of bodies, sloshing through mud and filthy water, no trees apart form the occasional burned-out stump still standing, wondering nervously if the rumours that the Germans have abandoned their lines and retreated are true.

And others are like a fantasyland or underworld metaphor, like when Schofield makes his way gingerly through the abandoned, destroyed village and the light of a huge fire in the town square and flares drifting down out of the night sky throw languid but terrifying shadows everywhehere, the screen lit up with constantly-moving surfaces of bone white and blood red.

The story is pretty simple. British forces somewhere in the trenches of France have discovered that the attack a nearby batallion is preparing to mount is a trap, and with communication lines cut, there's no way to warn them.

I'm not sure if the story behind Peter Weir's Gallipoli had any real life inspiration, but it might have been the basis for this film too. Two soldiers, Blake and Schofield, are asked by a visiting General (Colin Firth), to find the unit and warn them to call off the attack. Blake is especially gung ho because his brother's one of the soldiers in the doomed unit, so with Schofield spluttering in protest they set off across the ruined landscape to deliver the orders before it's too late.

Their journey takes them across a landscape that sometimes looks more like an alien planet than rural Europe – no greenery left, mud everywhere and the blown up bodies of soldiers and horses strewn around. They make their way into the (thankfully abandoned, as the rumours said) tunnels of the German front lines, through forests, farms, a destroyed village and beyond, a journey they won't even both survive.

As the man who's left makes his way closer to his goal, he loses more of himself. It happens physically inasmuch as chance and circumstance has seen him drop or forget every single item in his kit until he has nothing but the clothes on his back, and spiritually because when he reaches the other unit, he seems to sink into a stupor, fatigue and horror after the bloodshed and destruction he's seen making him forget why he's even there.

It's edge of your set stuff, brilliantly directed, lit, shot and staged every minute. But that doesn't mean there aren't flaws. The first one is the eye-rolling cliche of the soldier slumping in exhaustion when he reaches somewhere to hide and there just happening to be a pretty young village girl there to tend his wounds and soothe his troubled brow.

The bigger problem is in casting. It's not as much of an issue as it could have been because despite what good actors everyone in the cast is, it's the story of the journey – not the men doing it – who are the focus, a bit like Dunkirk. But any time character becomes a bit more prominent than plot, I found George MacKay pretty unsuited to the role of a plummy Brit. He's brilliant in everything, mind you, but it's in roles where he has a bit of grit and a bit of malice (see The True History of the Kelly Gang for the best example) where he really shines.

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