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1917 review: Tense one-take WWI epic a breathless anthem for doomed youth

Sam Mendes turns a family story from the Great War into a terrifyingly immersive movie experience, even if it does cheat a bit.

Imagine if this movie review were written in one sentence, a single headlong hurtling race through the intense action of 1917, the heart-stopping anthem for doomed youth from director Sam Mendes.

No, I can't keep it up. But that's just a taste of the intensity of 1917, a WWI film created to look like it's filmed in a single continuous take with no editing. The film places you squarely into the no-man's landscape of WWI like a demented virtual reality experience built from the memories of the dead.

The film opens in a peaceful meadow in northern France in the dark days of the Great War. Baby-faced chatterbox Blake grabs his mate Schofield, only to discover the two soldiers are being sent on what amounts to a suicide mission. They must find Blake's brother and call off an attack before scores of men go over the top and into a deadly trap. Straight of limb and true of eye, steady and aglow, these boys go to war. 

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Director Sam Mendes conjured visually striking twists to familiar action scenes in Road to Perdition and in his James Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre. In 1917, he's basically created one long action scene, artfully arranged to look like a single intricately choreographed take, alternating creeping tension with heart-wrecking chaos.

I like to think Mendes saw Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, another war movie with a time-twisting conceit, and decided to go one better. Nolan's film is an intensely immersive experience, throwing you into the heart of battle with a deliberate disregard for such artifice as characters and story. Drawing on a story told to him by his WWI veteran grandfather Albert, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns add more color to 1917, and it feels a bit movie-y by comparison. But it also has far more heart than Dunkirk, adding a weighty emotional punch to the unfolding story.

That's mainly due to the fresh-faced performances from Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay as Blake and Schofield, the two tommies with a job to do. The casting of these young and mostly unknown actors gives an authenticity and uncertainty to the unfolding story, adding to the spiraling tension as the pair face death with every step.  

Various better-known stars -- including Colin FirthBenedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong -- turn up as officers, as is the law for war movies. Andrew Scott's scruffy pragmatist is the highlight, a distinctive and compelling alternative to the immaculately mustachioed toffs we associate with the trenches. 

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Colin Firth plays a general, because of course he does.

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The camera drifts from the green fields beyond and follows the two boy soldiers as they descend into a trench and on through the dugouts and defenses of the Great War, beginning a journey that will take them deeper into the bowels of the earth and the depths of inhumanity. When they near the front lines, the soldiers lining the walls literally become part of the trenches. Men merging with mud, corpses sinking from sight in the filth. As the camera is unblinkingly funneled along the trench the feeling grows that they're on a preset path, following an inevitable and inescapable track with no say in their destiny. 

The one-shot thing is something of a double-edged sword, however. When it works, it's thrillingly immersive. But the illusion is fragile, all too easily calling attention to itself when it should be disappearing into the background. In theory, a single unbroken take should be unobtrusive because it's like standing there yourself, with no artificial cinema trickery such as editing. But we're so steeped in the language of cinema we don't notice those tricks, and a single take can feel odd and un-cinematic.

By refusing to cut, Mendes limits himself from movie-making basics like the reverse shot, so there are moments in 1917 when people are talking and it feels weird to just see the back of the other person's head instead of their reaction. On the other hand, it's a formidable tool as the camera stubbornly lingers on one view while you're straining, begging to turn and see what's happening beyond the confines of the screen. 1917 grips you with what you can't see as much as what you can.

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Sam Mendes orchestrates the one-take action.

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Of course, if you're the same kind of movie nerd as me, you'll be half watching the story and half watching for hidden cuts (there are several). It doesn't help that CGI has obviously been employed to enhance some of the set pieces. It looks great but takes the shine off the audacity of the one-take idea. 

Mendes also tries to have his biscuit and eat it too. Because it isn't a single take at all: there are two clangingly obvious cuts that massively deflate the whole gimmick. If you're going to have such an obvious cut, why bother making it one take? If the characters can't get where they're going without a cut, why write a story that's meant to be "real time"? Compare that with another one-take movie, the gloriously sinuous Victoria, which follows a young woman on a chaotic night out in Berlin. The beauty of that film is that you find yourself gasping in disbelief that that thing just happened and they're still rolling! By comparison, 1917 cheats.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and his stiff upper lip.

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That doesn't matter, of course. If you have no interest in how the levers are pulled, 1917's story and filmmaking will sweep you along. And even if you are the kind of nerd who cranes your neck trying to see behind the curtain, there still comes a point when any thoughts of cuts and CG vanish.

Because when the one-shot thing works, it works.

The final half hour is simply transcendent. A flare shoots into the sky and director of photography Roger Deakins gets to show off his peerless cinematography at its most showy, creating a near-mythical hallucinatory hellscape recalling Apocalypse Now's most nightmarish moments. The one-take wandering becomes a headlong sprint as the film's action scenes grab you by the throat and squeeze.

I was so tense my leg was bouncing like a jackhammer. I feel like the ending took a year off my life.

Forget about gushing quotes and star ratings. Probably the most effective way to advertise this movie is to strap heart rate monitors on viewers and put the results on the poster.

The most intense moments are conjured by not just the camera movement, but the combined power of everyone behind the camera. In one nail-biting sequence you can barely see anything, but the visceral fear comes from the terrifying noise that envelops you. 1917 is a masterclass of sound design and music as much as it is of cinematography. The prickling, unsettling score by Thomas Newman provides music in the midst of desolation, singing sorrow up into immortal spheres.

It's up to you whether 1917's breathless, intense action makes war look exciting or gives you a sickening taste of how terrifying and dehumanizing battle is. A headlong rush of a movie, it may not linger in the memory after stumbling from the theater. But Albert Mendes and the men who fought and died in this and every war -- to the end, to the end, they remain.

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Originally published Dec. 17.