Sam Mendes’s ‘1917’ leaves shell-shocked viewers hanging on the old barbed wire

Why the new war epic fully deserves every prize it is going to receive over the coming weeks of awards season

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays


Halfway through 1917, Sam Mendes's sublime First World War epic that ingeniously unfolds as if it is one continuous shot, there's a sequence of such audacity and beauty that it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by the cinematic assault.

That's not only because of Mendes's direction, though, as it perfectly combines with Thomas Newman's rousing score and Roger Deakins's awe-inspiring cinematography to create an instant reminder of the power of cinema.

Despite being set more than a century ago, 1917's staggering display of intensity and immersion couldn't have come at a better time for the medium, as the rise of streaming sites such as Netflix and Amazon has convinced more and more viewers to stay home for their entertainment.

Watching 1917 at home simply won't do the film justice. It demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible, as Mendes's visceral and meticulous approach is so overwhelming and dynamic that it transports you right into the First World War alongside its two leading characters, so much so that you genuinely feel exhausted by its conclusion.

This is especially because George MacKay's William Schofield and Dean-Charles Chapman's Tom Blake, the two lance corporals given the job of travelling across no man's land and enemy territory to warn soldiers of an ambush, spend so much time running.

The aforementioned sequence might be the pinnacle moment of 1917, but practically all of it deserves to be celebrated. You might start off the film trying to spot the edits that allow it to unfold continuously, but you'll soon be so captivated by the painstaking detail and constant movement of the camera that you'll forget all about the one-shot approach, while still being obliviously hypnotised by its subtle power.

But while 1917 is undeniably a war epic, one that ­instantly deserves its place among the pantheon of the genre, it also produces so many disturbing and harrowing images from the brutality of war that it at times feels like a horror and even a post-apocalyptic film, too. Especially because, for an extended period of 1917, everything that Schofield and Blake come into contact with is dead.

After starting on a peaceful and serene shot of a luscious field, which Schofield and Blake are using for a nap, the film soon dives back down into the dank trenches before our heroes are forced to cross into the hellish landscape that is no man's land. There we see miles and miles of barbed wire, as well as rotting corpses and an endless stream of rats, all of which are recreated in such detail that you almost feel like gagging or trembling, sometimes even both.

1917 doesn't just unsettle, though, as it delivers a number of startling and breathtaking set pieces that feel all the more vivid and visceral because we've been right alongside our leading men the entire running time. Unsurprisingly, these scenes rival the action of any Hollywood blockbuster because as the director of Skyfall and Spectre, Mendes knows a thing or two about keeping his audience surprised, hooked and entertained.

The film is also more than an astounding technical achievement. Mendes's acclaimed history in theatre, which has earned him Tony and Olivier awards, has also clearly came in handy. Amid the claustrophobia of trench warfare, he still manages to subtly manoeuvre and choreograph each scene, moving his characters around at precise moments so that they perfectly line-up with Deakins's smooth camera.

Diehard fans of Deakins, the most acclaimed cinematographer of his generation – who won an Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049 after 14 nominations – will be dazzled throughout. Deakins's virtuosity comes to the fore especially when the sun goes down. Amid the ruins of a burning French village, Deakins creates moments of searing, operatic beauty, all of which never get in the way and only enhance the action and momentum that, by this point, Mendes is just building and building upon.

<span>However, while </span><span><em>1917</em></span><span> is undoubtedly a triumph, there are a few flaws that ultimately stop it from </span><span>taking its place as a fully fledged masterpiece.</span>

However, while 1917 is undoubtedly a triumph, there are a few flaws that ultimately stop it from taking its place as a fully fledged masterpiece.

Some integral aspects of its plot don't land because it is in such a constant state of motion, which, ultimately, leaves you a little lost amid the chaos. Its most dramatic and emotional moment doesn't make the impact it should because the script becomes just a little too sappy and melodramatic. In fact, you're so captivated by the ingeniousness of its approach that its characters and performances never fully connect.

Because 1917 is such an audacious, inspiring and absorbing feat of filmmaking and storytelling, not only does it fully deserve every prize it is almost certainly going to receive over the coming weeks of the awards season, but it might just be the crowning movie achievement of the entire year, too.

1917 is now showing in cinemas across the UAE

Directed by Sam Mendes

Starring Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays