Film review: 1917 (15), 9/10
Practice makes breathlessly choreographed and nail-bitingly tense perfection in Sam Mendes's real-time thriller, inspired by stories of the Great War told by the director's grandfather, who served as a lance corporal.
Shot in real-time in several exquisitely staged single takes, which have been seamlessly stitched together by editor Lee Smith into a continuous fluid shot, 1917 is the product of six months of intense rehearsals and preparation, which included a physically gruelling training camp for hundreds of actors including leads Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay.
They undertook daily military drills in hobnail boots, acclimatising to the weight of uniforms and weapons before filming began so it would become second nature to check bayonets as hell unfolded around them.
This pre-production period allowed Mendes to work closely with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins to meticulously map out the intricate camerawork of each sequence, which places us in the trenches with the characters or pirouettes around impossibly tight spaces as bullets scythe through the air and blood seeps into shifting seas of thick mud.
It's a tour-de-force of technical daring, which repeatedly dazzles and dumbfounds, juxtaposing heart-breaking brutality and self-sacrifice with moments of dreamy, poetic introspection.
Mendes's script, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, oscillates between agonising suspense (a sprint across No Man's Land littered with the corpses of fallen horses towards the German trenches) and ominous calm (a short journey in the back of a truck crammed with troops).
This is visceral, gut-wrenching film-making that marches us into battle in uncomfortable proximity to the characters, compelling us to hold our breaths for long stretches of the two hours.
Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Chapman) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (MacKay) begin April 6, 1917, in peaceful slumber against a tree as thunder rumbles in the distance.
The men are roused to receive orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who must prevent Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) from leading the second Devons into a trap set by the Germans.
'We would lose two battalions - 1,600 men - your brother among them,' Mackenzie sombrely informs Blake.
The Germans have severed all telephone lines so the only way to warn the second Devons is to dispatch Blake and Schofield on foot into enemy territory to reach Mackenzie before dawn, when the fateful order will be given to attack the line.
1917 unfolds in real-time, pushing actors to the physical limit as we plunge headfirst through the emotional wringer with them, experiencing similar dizzying gut-punches as tragedy stalks their odyssey.
Thomas Newman's orchestral score possesses the urgency of a ticking pocket watch, underscoring Mendes's directorial brio and devastating performances from Chapman and MacKay.
Fleeting cameos from the likes of Andrew Scott, Mark Strong and Richard Madden don't distract from an intimate tale of valour and brotherhood under fire that sears into the memory.