Cert 15 stars 3
Oscar-winning Brit director Sam Mendes rejoins the directing fray with this First World War action adventure which goes over the top in its visuals, but left me shellshocked by a lack of emotional involvement.
Mendes has dedicated this passion project to his grandfather who served in the war, and has crafted a respectful, sincere, technically brilliant and all too beautiful film. I was so rapt by the majestic splendour of the trenches and battlefields I was dislocated from the drama.
Taking place over two days and starting on April 6, 1917, George MacKay stars as Lance Corporal Schofield, whose sent on a desperate mission across no mans land to prevent 1,600 British troops from being massacred in a German trap.
Among the hazards are mud, rats, snipers, planes and the German trenches, it’s no surprise their trenches are engineered to a notably superior quality than the British ones.
MacKay doesn’t put a foot wrong in his performance, but nor does he put his stamp on the film, given little personality or background and devoid of accent or class. Schofield’s supposed to be an everyman for us to identify with, but he’s instead he’s unknowable and anonymous.
And despite being a survivor of the Somme, he’s strangely unquestioning of the war and offers only the vaguest of hints at PTSD, and little bitterness or outrage.
Plus by giving small roles for accomplished players such as Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott, there’s a huge sense MacKay has been miscast.
Without doubt the production design is fabulous, with the burnt-out towns and vast tracts of destroyed land being realised on an epic scale. It’s a ruined landscape of corpses, stunted trees and enormous water filled shell-holes.
The expense, futility and madness of war is eloquently articulated in the sheer volume of bodies and abandoned armaments scattered across the battlefields. And in the age of CGI it’s great they’ve gone to the bother of putting a lot of blokes in real costumes in real trenches.
I’m a huge fan of the outrageously talented British cinematography Roger Deakins, but Mendes doesn’t rein in his desire to make every shot worthy of framing and hung on a wall. And the often theatrical and always gorgeous staging is a curious choice for a film concerned with the horror of combat.
Pretty much the first half of the film is presented as being one continuous shot, yet it’s fairly easy to see where the joins are. And while the extended shots are a tremendous technical achievement, they give the film to an almost documentary detachment, and the excitement tails off fairly early on.
Failing in comparison to recent war movies such as Dunkirk or Saving Private Ryan, this doesn’t the have the power of early classics such as 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
And while this film doesn’t glorify war it does seem reluctant to condemn those in charge of the carnage, with British offices being believably cynical, manipulative and boorish, but also less credibly professional, helpful and even friendly.
With Mendes being keen not to demonise the enemy or the lunatic British aristocracy responsible for the industrial slaughter there isn’t much of an enemy – which would normally be considered an oversight in a war movie.