Based on his grandfather’s First World War stories, Sam Mendes’ new feature follows two young soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) tasked with delivering a vital message behind enemy lines.

Presented as if in two continuous takes, 1917 appears more convincing even than Birdman, the spectacle heightened by the complexity and authenticity of every sequence. The sense of urgency is sustained over two hours and feels shorter as a result, matching Saving Private Ryan‘s D-Day landing in terms of intensity if not gore; the worst of the violence is shrouded in dust clouds and flame-lit silhouette, but is no less impactful for it. In the blink of an eye, Mendes moves from moments of heart-racing excitement to heart-sinking emotion that stick in your throat like thick dust.

The two likeable leads provide much of this emotional involvement, with MacKay delivering a star-making turn. In fact the sudden appearance of famous actors (Mark Strong, Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch) is the only unwelcome reminder that you’re watching a film, so involving is every other aspect of the picture. Even when the story elements seem familiar from other war movies, Roger Deakins’ cinematography elevates them to breathtaking new heights. This is a perfect use of the form, throwing you head-first into the otherwise unimaginable; a seamless portrayal of the endlessness of war.

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