Lying in a field of wildflowers, lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman: The King) and Schofield (George MacKay: A Guide to Second Date Sex) can almost pretend that the world isn’t ending around them. Mere feet away is the mouth of the trenches, a system of rat-infested troughs of rot, despair and mud. Bloodied men limp; others huddle in little coves clawed out of the dirt.
Into this hell comes news that the Germans retreated. The end of the Great War seems near. But new aerial photos revealed the retreat as a trap, into which a large section of the British army has fallen.
Blake and Schofield are assigned a special mission. Their general hopes to stop disaster by sending them through miles of enemy territory to reach a battalion planning an attack. If they don’t reach the advancing section before dawn, 1,600 soldiers will be sent to slaughter. To add to the urgency, one of the otherwise doomed soldiers is Blake’s older brother.
The men set off, racing through the sludge and gore, hoping, just once, to spare some lives.
Tense, heart-wrenching and breathtakingly cinematic 1917 is a triumph. Director Sam Mendes (Spectre), who co-wrote the script, crafts a spectacular tale, capturing the horrors of trench warfare and the beauty of the destroyed countryside. World War I doesn’t have as many dedicated movies as World War II, perhaps because of the sense of futility the Great War evokes. Mendes echoes that sentiment in both the attitudes of the soldiers and in the world around them. He films a world filled with horrors: mud-covered body parts, dead horses, rats and destroyed cities. Yet there is still beauty, cherry blossoms next to a burning farmhouse, flowers at the mouth of a trench serving as tiny flickers of hope in a bleak world.
Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Goldfinch) crafts a gorgeous and gruesome world for the soldiers to traverse. Mud sloughs off craters to reveal bodies drowned in the mire. Blue morning light bathes men readying to run at German artillery. Archways from bombed-out buildings glow bright in the flames of a battle, looking like the gates of hell. Every image is striking, every frame a new exploration of the dark beauty of war.
To add to the urgency of the plot, Deakins crafts the film to look like one continuous take. There’s no cutting for reactions, no breaks from the action. He marches the audience right along with the soldiers. Instead of feeling like a slog, it makes the journey exhilarating.
At the heart of the film, MacKay, gives a stirring performance. Conscripted by chance on this suicide mission, his Schofield has seen what war is, even earned a medal, and he knows exactly how horrid and hopeless their mission is. He is all battle-hardened realism in foil to Blake’s bold optimism.
1917 isn’t a Christmas movie for the family. There’s far too much realism to show little ones or the fainthearted. It’s a movie for lovers of great films, awe-inspiring and moving.
Great War Film • R • 119 mins.
~~~ New this Week ~~~
After a tragic murder, a curse descends upon a house. All who enter are stalked and killed by a vengeful ghost. This is bad news for Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough), who comes to the house to investigate a crime. For the ghost is determined to kill both her and her son.
As The Grudge is a reboot of the classic Japanese film (that also had a successful American adaptation), you may know its broad strokes. If you’re a diehard Grudge fan, it could still be fun. But remember that early January starts the two cinematic dead months when studios expend all the terrible films they don’t think will make money.
Prospects: Dim • R • 94 mins.