Director: Sam Mendes
“From the director of Skyfall” yells the poster and the trailer, which is true but not the point.
The story is simple enough, though I won’t go into much detail because it’s hard to avoid spoilers (steer clear of Wikipedia and the trailer, come to that). Two lance-corporals are given the job of slogging their way over nine miles of what may or may not be no man’s land to deliver a message to a Colonel who is due to lead his men over the top in the morning to chase what he thinks is the Germans in retreat. In fact, it’s a cunning German tactical withdrawal and he’s leading his men to certain death.
The much noted “one continuous take” is a bit of a misnomer. What it actually means is that there are no cutaways back to base, or back to Blighty – the story starts at A and continues uninterrupted to Z, where it ends. The action of the film takes, at a guess, 12 hours, so QED. No matter, it’s a brilliant, continually absorbing and gruelling two hours. There were times I just wanted it all to stop, thoroughly gruelled, not unlike the men in the film.
The photography, by Roger Deakins, is brilliant. Without going overboard, the colour has a drabness that seems entirely appropriate. Thomas Newman’s music, largely electronic, gives depth to what you’re seeing without being overbearing. The production design is almost beyond belief, although how much is CGI I can’t say. The ruined landscape, the mud, the ruined buildings, the corpses, the dead horses…you’re right there. The occasional touch of sentimentality brings welcome relief.
The cast of thousands play their parts well, especially of course our two reluctant anti-heroes, played by George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman, who we come to know very well. The familiar faces – Colin Firth, Andrew Scott, Mark Strong, Cumberdick Bendybatch – are welcome and don’t overplay their hands.
Apparently, Mendes was inspired to make this film by his grandfather’s stories. I never got to hear my grandfather’s stories, even assuming he was happy to tell them, because he was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915, when my father was just 2. They never found his body. Looking at the corpses hanging on the wire and sinking into the mud, unlikely to be retrieved and buried, it was impossible not to think of him. But you don’t have to have a personal connection to find this film an astonishing, bravura piece, probably the most vivid portrayal of the WW1 nightmare ever.
One tiny niggle: an astonishing number of bullets in the last half hour fail to find their mark.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
“Enjoyed” is relative, of course. Other gruelling war films I suppose, eg Saving Private Ryan, plus of course They Shall Not Grow Old. But actually everybody who loves great film-making, as long as you have the stomach for it.