A war drama of extraordinary technical and emotional achievement. 

Direction:Sam Mendes
Screenplay:Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Cast:George MacKay, Dean Charles-Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott
Claire Duburcq, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch
Length:119 minutes

Often the simplest plots are the best for epic staging. Two young British soldiers, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (MacKay) and Tom Blake (Chapman) have been charged by General Erinmore (Firth) with preventing the planned attack by the 2nd Battalion of Devonshire Regiment. They mistakenly believe the Germans are in full retreat but are actually tactically withdrawing in order to use their artillery on the infantry. With field telephone lines cut, they must deliver the message by hand before the attack the following day to save the lives of 1,600 men including Blake’s brother. 

A treacherous descent into destruction develops as the protagonists move cautiously through a maze of death. Like the soldiers we’re held in a ubiquitous state of tension, both by the leading characters’ progress and the cerebral writhing of Thomas Newman’s score. 

With each challenge Schofield and Blake surpass, the further they journey from relative safety adding to the sense of foreboding. Louder and softer the music groans, evoking the sound of far off shelling and the image that while all is quiet here and now, it is only temporary as battles are raging somewhere and death is never far away. 

Lance Corporals Will Schofield (MacKay) and Tom Blake (Chapman) make their way through the barbed wire of No Man’s Land in ‘1917’ | © 2020 Universal Pictures

Step by step, the characters walk the story through dangerously cramped trenches, hazardous underground tunnels and battle-scarred farmland. Completely isolated with only each other for survival by chance, Schofield and Blake in fear of their lives yet they press on. One wrong move could be their last. Just one story of true heroism representative of so many that fought, died and survived an unimaginable existence. The tragedy of war is inescapable.

But life goes on.

An entire world has been created in ‘1917’. What unfolds before us is a miraculous combination of forensic planning in screenwriting and production designing and the meticulous precision of acting and directing in order to execute what is essentially a cinematic play staged on location in real time but that never feels staged for effect. One-shot filming requires a faultless performance from cast and crew and all should be commended for the distinctive qualities this gives the film. 

Schofield (MacKay) hauls himself out of a river of bodies to deliver a message that will spare 1,600 lives | © 2020 Universal Pictures

Violent sequences alternate with moments of great beauty. Death and life intertwine. Crossing the broken bridge, escaping the bombed town and running through open battle are all stand-out set-pieces. While Strong, Scott and Cumberbatch add gravitas to pivotal moments, Duburcq and Madden provide sensitive relief. And then there’s George MacKay. Despite enduring such mental and physical extremities that are truly unbelievable in order to make this film as great as it is, he has infuriatingly been left out of the Best Actor categories this awards season. Thankfully, the film has not.          

Winner of two Golden Globes (Best Director and Motion Picture – Drama) from three nominations, ‘1917’ has also been nominated for nine BAFTAs, including Best Film, and ten Oscars, including Best Picture. While Sam Mendes won Best Director at the Critics’ Choice Awards (in a tie with Bong Joon-Ho for ‘Parasite’), one of its three wins from eight nominations, ‘Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood’ won Best Picture. With the lattermost having also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and picked up nominations for the highest honours at the Oscars and BAFTAs, further top prizes for ‘1917’ throughout the rest of awards season are far from certain. But they should be. 

An almighty gamble has paid off and the one-shot wonder of ‘1917’ should be handsomely rewarded as an iconic cinematic accomplishment alone. It deserves to be experienced on the big screen and will stay with you long after you leave the cinema.

As the lone tree stands tall at the denouement of the film, so can the filmmakers. 

Watch this film!

‘1917’ is in cinemas now.