Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. United Kingdom/USA, 2019. Amblin Partners, DreamWorks, Neal Street Productions, New Republic Pictures. Screenplay by Sam Mendes, Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Produced by Pippa Harris, Callum McDougall, Sam Mendes, Brian Oliver, Jayne-Ann Tenggren. Music by Thomas Newman. Production Design by Dennis Gassner. Costume Design by David Crossman, Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Lee Smith. Academy Awards 2019. AFI Film of the Year 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. National Board of Review Awards 2019. Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
Sam Mendes tells a tale of World War I that is instantly worthy of the best films on the subject, from Grand Illusion to the more recent They Shall Not Grow Old. Inspired by tales he learned from his own grandfather, it stars George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as two soldiers who are three years into exhausting battle, informed by their commanding officer (Colin Firth) that they must undertake a dangerous mission. Another unit that is deeper in enemy territory is preparing to attack what they think is a weakened German army on a newly-drawn front line, and its leader does not know that the situation is a trap that will get almost two thousand men killed. The Germans have already cut telephone communications, so the only way for the message to be received is for these two men to cross no man’s land into German-controlled areas of the bombed out French countryside, vulnerable to all manner of attack from land or air, and needing to keep their wits about them as they come into contact with the odd straggling solder or, in one particularly devastating sequence, an airplane that is shot out of the sky. Filmed in what has been, through excellent digital blending, rendered as one long continuous take (well, two if you take into account the one character’s blackout midway through the film), this is the war movie version of Mad Max: Fury Road, a smoothly photographed voyage across a barren terrain whose efficient plotting strips every moment down to its essence (you either survive or you don’t), orienting its movement in a single direction as the characters push forward to their goal. The intensely dramatic and often deeply moving look at one of the lowest points of human conflict is made vivid thanks to devastated landscapes that look like something out of Tarkovsky, with some scenes (like finding a French woman in a shadowy basement) feeling like disturbing nightmares that the daylight battle scenes don’t in any way alleviate.