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George MacKay stars in Sam Mendes's First World War epic 1917.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Universal Pictures

  • 1917
  • Directed by Sam Mendes
  • Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
  • Starring George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman
  • Classification R
  • 118 minutes

rating

As more and more films are sent through the direct-to-streaming pipeline, it has become something of a cliché for directors to tell audiences that, no, really, my film needs to be seen on the big screen. Listen, buddy, if Michael Bay is content with having his blockbuster-scaled chaos viewed on a tablet, then you are just going to have to suck it up, too. But in the case of Sam Mendes’s First World War thriller 1917, I am willing to concede that this is indeed a cinematic experience that demands the largest canvas possible.

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Structured as a real-time, one-continuous-shot narrative – although there are a few obvious cheats along the way – 1917 follows two young British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they embark on an unenviable task: crossing no man’s land in Northern France to deliver a battalion-saving message. As Mendes and his cinematographer Roger Deakins weave in and out of trenches and bombed-out villages, the film takes on an adrenalinized life of its own. Its pace is as propulsive as the film’s conceit is ambitious. It all leads up to a climactic battlefield dash that should justifiably become a staple of war-cinema highlight reels for decades to come.

1917 tells the story of two British soldiers tasked with delivering a message that could save a battalion in Northern France.

Photo Credit: François Duhamel /Universal Pictures

Shot in natural light and careful to never repeat a single location, the film is a wonder to behold, especially, yes, if you’re immersed in the absolute dark of a theatre. But 1917 is also, in both its one-shot trickery and go-go-go narrative structure, slightly goofy – there is no real dramatic reason, for instance, that the soldiers have to hitch a ride half a mile up a hill midway through the film, other than to keep the bloody thing moving. Annoying, too, are the many serious-British-actor cameos that are sprinkled throughout, as if Mendes and company were not confident that two relative unknowns could hold down everyone’s attentions (they do, with Chapman proving to be an especially charismatic standout). Frequently, the film’s unbroken structure also results in an unintentional guessing game of “Spot the Cut” – not the most endearing distraction.

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Still, any film that explicitly exploits the power of a big screen – even in such an unabashed and pandering go-for-broke manner – deserves to be seen on a big screen, too. Just don’t expect 1917 to turn the tide on the streaming war.

1917 opens Dec. 25 in Toronto before expanding to theatres across the country Jan. 10.

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