IT’S A SIMPLE enough story. We’re deep in the mud in one of the Allied trenches during the First World War. Aerial reconnaissance has determined that the sudden quietness of the German troops doesn’t signal retreat. It signals a trap. The German forces have relocated strategically to lure a newly arrived deployment of allies, who are readying for an attack, into what would be a massacre. The only way to avoid this is to get a message to them before it’s too late. An emissary, whose brother will fall into the death trap, has been chosen to sneak across a potential slaughter zone and stop the allied attack before it’s too late. He has about eight hours to do so. He chooses a friend to accompany him.
And so this story of daring, courage, fear, hope and the mindless brutality of war begins.
It’s an extraordinary and breakthrough piece of film-making. The entire story seems to unfold, breathlessly, terrifyingly, In real time during two long seemingly uninterrupted takes. The camera (guided by the masterful director of photography, Roger Deakins) is a relentlessly observing eye that simply follows the increasingly bizarre, picaresque journey of the two men as they battle to stay alive against all odds. The technique shatters the wall between us, the observers, and the action on the screen. We become the camera. We’re there with the lads, in the field of slaughter; we’re with them as they flee an inflamed, crashing aircraft that threatens to smash into us; we’re there, pushing past bloated corpses floating like human buoys from hell.
The movie removes the abstraction of “war is hell” and immerses us viscerally into its reality (without needing to shock us with scenes of exploding bodies etc). It’s not a story seen through the eyes of its increasingly numbed protagonists; we see it, feel it through our own eyes.
Whereas that other powerfully immediate war movie, Saving Private Ryan dwelt at some length on the idea of the ‘cost’ or value of the individual life, director Sam Mendes has been careful not to overlay too much philosophical and literary niceties into his narrative, lest they distract from the immediacy of the experience. (Not that it’s absent of multiple pleasing narrative touches: a pail of fresh milk – where did it come from? Who left it there? – is a life-saver later on; an act of heroism ends in tragedy etc.)
And it isn’t just the one take technique that’s so stunning; there’s an attention to detail (what research he must have done!) that contributes to the absolute veracity of the story even as Thomas Newman’s (Skyfall) magisterial, atmospheric score underlines the movie’s emotive clout.
The two lead principals, Dean-Charles Chapman (Tommy Baratheon in GOT) and George MacKay (The History of the Kelly Gang), along with a supporting cast of stellar Brit actors: Daniel Mays, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott and Colin Firth, are outstanding. MacKay is particularly compelling. Over the day of his journey, he matures from the juvenile, profoundly reluctant messenger to a scarred-for-life, determined, traumatized, profoundly reluctant hero. The man who emerges after the end of the eight hours of so in hell is a different man.
Of course, a movie that’s as technically stunning as this one (The sets for instance had to be designed to suit the time frame of how long it took the actors to walk from one location to the other and to ‘read’ their lines) is testament to more than the director’s orchestration. It demands a knit of talents that fabricate the illusion of real time action and that really drives home just how collaborative an enterprise movie making is. Here, the tremendous work of the set designers (led by Dennis Gassner), the invisible magic of the editor (Lee Smith), Nicoletta Mani and Emily Richardson’s continuity stitching and David Cossman’s and Jacqueline Durran’s costume designs pull it all together…
- What else can I add, but that it magnificently lives up to the deserved hype.
- Dir: Sam Mendes. Writers: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns. With: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Daniel Mays, Mark strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Andrew Scott, Colin Firth. Cinematography: Roger Deakins. Score: Thomas Newman. Production Designer: Dennis Gassner (Blade Runner 2049). Editor: Lee Smith (Dunkirk). Costume design: David Cossman and Jacqueline Durran. Continuity: Nicoletta Mani and Emily Richardson