Dean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay in a scene from 1917, directed by Sam Mendes. (François Duhamel/Universal Pictures via AP)

Dean-Charles Chapman, left, and George MacKay in a scene from 1917, directed by Sam Mendes. (François Duhamel/Universal Pictures via AP)

FILM REVIEW: ‘1917’ portrays war on the run

Ordinary soldiers take on a seemingly impossible mission in Best Picture Oscar front runner

Currently considered the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, 1917 is an immersive, imaginative, altogether haunting look at trench warfare at the height of the First World War.

Two young British lance corporals (Pride’s George MacKay and Game of ThronesDean-Charles Chapman) are given what seems like a suicide mission: they have less than 24 hours to leg it through many miles of enemy territory in order to warn 1,600 British soldiers that next morning’s battle charge will take them into a carefully prepared German trap. Good luck, chaps!

Monday film reviewer Robert Moyes

The two soldiers are played as ordinary fellows who display an appealing mix of bravery and bickering as they undertake this seemingly impossible mission. After scrambling nervously through no-man’s-land, they find themselves in some just-abandoned German trenches, which are more elaborate and much better engineered than their British equivalent. “Even their rats are bigger than ours,” quips one of the soldiers when he spots a plump rodent scuttling along. But that moment of low comedy transforms into unexpected terror as the first of several dire challenges is revealed. And as the increasingly desperate mission continues, audience expectations are cleverly manipulated and confounded.

The so-called Great War was humanity’s first experience of slaughter on an industrial scale and 1917’s nightmarish setting is at times a literal charnel house: decomposing bodies hang from barbed wire barriers, and faces and limbs partially emerge from sepulchers of oozing mud. A herd of dead cows litters a pasture, having been machine-gunned by retreating Germans to prevent British soldiers from getting a decent meal. And everywhere there are crows pecking away at the abundant corpses.

Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) has directed this emotionally powerful and technically ambitious film with finesse. The harsh realities of trench warfare and life on the front lines are portrayed with shocking honesty, while the excellent performances are effectively understated. The storyline is a master class in suspense. And alongside all the matter-of-fact heroism on display, the script occasionally reminds the audience that war is a tormenting form of madness.

This is must-see viewing – and a wonderful companion piece to They Will Never Grow Old, the poignant First World War documentary compiled by Peter Jackson that marvelously edits together candid footage with evocative voice-over narration.

Rating: ****

COMING SOON:

Emma

There’s always room for another Jane Austen adaptation, and this new version of the much-loved romantic comedy-drama stars Anya Taylor-Joe, who is usually found screaming her way through horror movies like The Witch and Split.

Birds of Prey

DC Comics star Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has jettisoned the Suicide Squad and the Joker and hooked up with a band of badass female heroines for this hard-edged action thriller.

The Invisible Man

In this fresh retelling of the 1933 horror classic, Elizabeth Moss (Handmaid’s Tale) stars as a woman whose abusively sociopathic husband is supposed to be dead. But when creepy things start to bedevil her she’s convinced he’s still somehow alive … while everyone else thinks she’s going insane.

The Call of the Wild

Harrison Ford and a slobberingly cute St. Bernard star in an adaptation of Jack London’s classic tale of adventure in the Yukon.

The Rhythm Section

Blake Lively (The Shallows) stars in a thriller about a plane crash survivor who seeks revenge on the villains who orchestrated the crash that killed her family.

Film ReviewsRobert Moyes

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