A tri­umph that takes us deep into the un­for­get­table hell of WWI

Our critic’s ver­dict on epic new film by Sam Men­des in­spired by his grand­fa­ther:

Daily Mail - - News - Re­view by Brian Viner

Last year’s re­mark­able doc­u­men­tary they shall Not Grow Old, a treasure trove of orig­i­nal but newly colourised First World War footage, showed that no bigscreen drama­ti­sa­tion of trench war­fare would ever be quite right, for one strik­ing if pro­saic rea­son: In real life, sol­diers’ teeth, al­most with­out ex­cep­tion, were ter­ri­ble.

In ev­ery other re­spect, how­ever, the au­di­ence at last night’s Royal Film Per­for­mance was pro­pelled back to the West­ern Front with the same ex­tra­or­di­nary, vis­ceral power, such is the skill of sam Men­des as a film-maker and the bold sim­plic­ity of his story.

Bold, be­cause he resists the temp­ta­tion to in­tro­duce lay­ers of plot or char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion. He even resists the temp­ta­tion to tell us anew what, thanks to all those fa­mil­iar an­i­mal metaphors, we al­ready know – that our brave boys are li­ons led by don­keys, go­ing like lambs to the slaugh­ter.

In­stead, this is an ac­count of a per­ilous but straight­for­ward mission, by a pair of lance cor­po­rals handed the chal­lenge of de­liv­er­ing a mes­sage in­tended to save the lives of 1,600 men.

to do so, they must cross bat­tle-rav­aged no-man’s land and the Ger­mans’ aban­doned front line, at im­mense per­sonal risk.

It is a fic­tion­alised tale, but in­spired by sto­ries told to the di­rec­tor by his late grand­fa­ther, al­fred Men­des, who was awarded a Mil­i­tary Medal for brav­ery dur­ing the 1917 Bat­tle of Poel­cap­pelle and to whom the film is ded­i­cated.

so this is an in­tensely per­sonal pro­ject. How­ever, Men­des would be the first to con­cede his debt to vet­eran Bri­tish cin­e­matog­ra­pher Roger Deakins, who won an academy award for de­pict­ing the fu­ture in Blade Run­ner 2049 and is a strong con­tender for an­other – for evok­ing the past.

He takes us with these men on their har­row­ing jour­ney by film­ing in what ap­pears to be (but isn’t, quite), a sin­gle con­tin­u­ous take. the ef­fect is thrillingl­y, at times knuckle-chew­ingly, im­mer­sive.

Men­des has picked cin­e­matic ti­tans Colin Firth and Bene­dict Cumberbatc­h to play the top brass. Mark strong and an­drew scott play of­fi­cers, too. But as­tutely, he has cast as his two cor­po­rals a pair of ac­tors you might recog­nise but strug­gle to name, in Ge­orge MacKay and Dean-Charles Chap­man. they are the stars, hand­ily re­in­forc­ing the mes­sage that most war he­roes come from the ranks. Chap­man plays Blake, cho­sen be­cause he is good at map-read­ing and also has a beloved older brother with the en­dan­gered divi­sion. a gen­eral (Firth) ex­plains tersely that the Ger­mans have re­treated, and the field com­man­der (Cumberbatc­h) is about to or­der an advance, not know­ing what aerial re­con­nais­sance has shown, that the en­emy has only re­treated to lure them into a heav­ily for­ti­fied trap. With phone wires cut, only mes­sen­gers can stop the oth­er­wise in­evitable car­nage. so Blake picks his friend schofield (MacKay) to join him, and their grim-faced cap­tain (scott) sends them off with a ‘chee­rio’ that is any­thing but cheer­ful. AF­teR

that, they are on their own, ex­cept of course that we are with them ev­ery step of the way, past the pu­tre­fy­ing corpses of men and horses and even cows (shot by the Ger­mans to re­move a source of food), through booby-trapped, rat-in­fested trenches and on into other equally un­for­get­table vi­sions of hell.

Men­des’ last two pic­tures were sky­fall and spec­tre, fea­tur­ing oo­dles of Bri­tish der­ring-do, James Bond-style. But 1917 de­picts a dif­fer­ent kind of courage, forced on two or­di­nary young men by a fierce sense of duty, yes, but an even fiercer in­stinct to sur­vive. It is a stun­ning film. 1917 opens across the UK on Jan­uary 10.

Fam­ily ties: Men­des and his grand­fa­ther Al­fred

Trap: Cumberbatc­h as field com­man­der

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