In the first shot of this groundbreaking World War I film, two young British soldiers — lance corporals Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — are caught napping in a field. It’s the last time they, or we in the audience, will be able to catch a breath. For the next two hours, director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins will stalk these young men in what seems like one continuous take, tagging along as they charge through enemy territory on a mission to save lives. Their orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth) are crystal clear: They must make their way across booby-trapped, corpse-strewn terrain in France to hand-deliver a message to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), commander of the Second Battalion. It contains orders to call off a planned advance against the German army, falsely assumed to be on the ropes. Turns out it’s a trap that could result in the slaughter of more than 1,600 British soldiers, including Blake’s brother (Bodyguard star Richard Madden). With communications down, the only hope rests with two boys who can barely shave.
And they’re off, over two days in April 1917, choking on tension that never lets up. Mendes, who won an Oscar for his 1999 debut film, American Beauty, and has been performing award-winning wonders on stage with The Ferryman and The Lehman Trilogy, is testing himself. About that single take — it’s impossible, of course. Filmmakers from Alejandro G. Iñárritu in Birdman and Alexander Sokurov in Russian Ark have also faked it before. But Mendes, in ardent and artful tandem with editor Lee Smith (Dunkirk) and Deakins, his creative partner on Skyfall, Revolutionary Road and Jarhead, creates a visionary miracle. Any fears you might have going in that technical trickery is usually short for “gimmick” are instantly allayed by the film’s palpable sense of intimacy.
For the screenplay that Mendes wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), he didn’t consult the history books so much as the stories told to him by his grandfather, Alfred Mendes, a messenger on the Belgian front to whom 1917 is dedicated. You can see the influence of other films about the period, notably Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary that restored actual WWI footage to startling life. But Mendes follows his own muse in juxtaposing terror with surprising tenderness, as when a German biplane plummets from the sky and Blake and Schofield try to rescue the enemy pilot. Images of war vie with such moments as Schofield’s encounter with a woman and an orphan baby in the bombed-out village of Écoust, where a skirmish with a German sniper knocks Schofield out cold, creating a brief break in the film’s real-time momentum.
Still, the director makes sure the actors aren’t upstaged by the pyrotechnics. Mark Strong (Kingsman) and Andrew Scott (the hot priest on Fleabag) register strongly as British officers encountered along the way. But the real soul of 1917 can be found in it two lead actors. Chapman (Tommen Baratheon on Game of Thrones) displays the fighting spirit of youth as Blake blunders into heroism. And MacKay (the eldest son of Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic) nails every nuance in an astounding performance. Whether running past soldiers storming the battlefield or getting stopped in his tracks by a voice singing the haunting “Wayfaring Stranger,” Schofield stays determined to complete his mission. And the burning intensity of MacKay’s face, reflecting the ferocity and futility of war, leaves an indelible mark. His fervor, coupled with the creative passion that Mendes infuses in every frame, makes 1917 impossible to shake.