What’s extraordinary about Sam Mendes’ epic W.W.I film is that it follows the harrowing journey of two young British infantryman in one seemingly continuous shot.
On April 6, 1917, when all phone lines have been cut on the Hindenberg Line in northern France, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is summoned by General Erinmore (Colin Firth) to deliver an important message to Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch), directing him not to proceed with a planned advance to the front because the Germans have set an ambush.
Blake has been chosen for this urgent, race-against-time battlefield mission because his older brother (Richard Madden) is part of Mackenzie’s 2nd battalion and the lives of the 1,600 British soldiers at Croisilles Wood depend on their alacrity.
Terrified Blake and his buddy Schofield (George MacKay) embark on a perilous overnight trek across a German-occupied wasteland, dodging barbed wire and booby traps. They’re given a brief lift in a convoy as far as the bombed-out French village of Ecoust, where they encounter a German sniper in the rubble, but, after that, they’re their own.
Scripted by Krysty Wilson-Cairns and director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “Spectre,” “American Beauty”), whose grandfather had been a runner in the war, its storytelling is simple and straightforward, evoking memories of other W.W.I films like “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “War Horse.”
Working closely with Mendes, cinematographer Roger Deakins (“Blade Runner 2049”) conceived the minimalist concept as one, nearly uninterrupted shot. That bold artistic decision required six months of extensive preparation, involving timing, rehearsing and blocking each scene, so the camera stayed connected to the characters.
Its ominous effect is augmented by editor Lee Smith, production designers Dennis Gassner & Lee Sandales, costumers Jacqueline Durran & David Crossman, and composer Thomas Newman (a 14-time Oscar nominee). Kudos also to sound mixers Stuart Wilson, Scott Millan & Mark Taylor and sound editor Oliver Tarney.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “1917” is a compelling, immersive 9, an audacious cinematic adventure.