1917 begins with two soldiers dozing under a tree in a field in Normandy, meadow flowers swaying in the breeze. Treasure this moment of calm; take one last deep breath. You may forget to take another during the 119 minutes left on the clock of Sam Mendes’ astonishing war movie, filmed as if in one single unbroken take with no visible edits, and with the urgency of a thriller. Mendes’s camera plunges the audience in it up to our eyeballs as he drags these two soldiers through hell.
It’s April 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman is cheery chappy Blake, a young lance corporal, good with maps, whose nap is interrupted with urgent orders to cross enemy lines. He must deliver a message nine miles away to Colonel MacKenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is calling off an attack on retreating German forces. New intelligence has revealed the retreat to be a trap – the 1,600 British soldiers are walking into a massacre. George MacKay plays sensitive, slightly stiff Lance Corporal Schofield, the poor sod sleeping next to Blake when he gets the order; he must accompany him. They need to reach the colonel before dawn – nicely setting up a beat-the-clock nailbiter.
Mendes co-wrote the script with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, and there is something of John le Carré in the slippery unfeeling workings of the top brass. Did the general pick Blake for this mission because he can read a map better than most? Or does the general, coolly, sadistically even, calculate that it will be impossible for Blake to refuse since his own brother is among the troops about to be ambushed? As le Carré himself once said: “Unfortunately, it’s the weak who destroy the strong.”
The film’s visuals come courtesy of the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose work here is dazzling. With Wiltshire doubling as northern France, the pair leave the trenches – I’ve never seen so many shades of mud – and walk into a hellish post-apocalyptic landscape. First they must cross No Man’s Land in broad daylight, stepping over bodies gnawed at by well-fed rats. Andrew Scott has a fleeting appearance as a sardonic lieutenant, driven a little mad by the futility of it all. As the two soldiers prepare to go over the top, he sprinkles whisky on them like a priest with holy water. If it gets dark follow the stench, he tells them.
What unfurls is a fight for survival. You might find it grandiose or hubristic, but Mendes so insistently focuses on the characters that I was gripped. 1917 is a film with a battalion of fine actors, many of them – like Scott and Cumberbatch, plus Colin Firth and Mark Strong – in blink and you’ll miss them roles. But it belongs to the two young unknown-ish actors, Chapman and particularly MacKay, who gives a riveting performance. His high-cheekboned face and haunted eyes, conveying so much in a glance, seem to carry the soul of the war poets.