This movies thrusts the audience into the experience of soldiers during WWI. It tells a stripped down narrative with a “single take” technical style that rises above a mere gimmick to create a powerful war film.
The story follows two young British soldiers Schofield and Blake (played well by George McKay and Dean Charles Chapman respectively) who are tasked with getting a message to a battalion containing Blake’s brother near the German line. The message is to call off an attack that is doomed to fail. The attack is set for the following morning. The clock begins ticking and these two soldiers must move through every hell that the first world war had to offer in order to save the lives of their comrades.
The movie is rich in specific personal details that lend the film a deeply authentic feel. The two men must make their way first through the endless labyrinth of the British trench. This segment will feel long and laborious to some viewers, but that is the point. It shows exactly how cramped, dirty, and truly awful the trenches were. It shows exactly how endless these lines were for the men in them. It was a miserable way to live. The details here feel so true. The ever-present mud, the decaying bodies underfoot, the burned out remains of what must have been a beautiful forest all add to the sense of cold reality this film has. From the trenches, the men cross no man’s land heading toward a German line that they hope is deserted. The tension builds slowly and never truly relents from there.
The entire film is presented as a single shot. It is of course digitally altered to stitch together many shots, but the fact that the audience is never allowed the release of an edit or a hard cut truly throws the audience into the tension of the moment. The audience is gripped by the screen and never allowed to look away. They are submerged into the experiences of Blake and Schofield.
As for Blake and Schofield, they are well rounded characters whose development is expressed almost incidentally. Their stories are told in short bursts of dialogue that take place under the action. There aren’t long drawn out heart to hearts or big character moments. They are revealed in little details shared along their journey. Blake’s family had cherry trees. Schofield doesn’t care about the medals or the glory of war. Blake is a good person who wants to help. Schofield has seen too much of this war. This isn’t a character study. This is an examination of the war through action. It’s a mostly silent film just depicting for the audience the horrors.
There are so many moments in this movie that will haunt the viewer and bring tears to the eyes. There is a horrific scene in which a character holds a soldier while he dies. Because the whole thing plays out in one shot the scene never allows the audience the release of an edit. There is no artifice in this moment it is just the tragic end of life that was experienced by so many. There are moments of respite from the grim horror as when cherry blossoms are found and enjoyed, or when a baby is discovered and cared for. The film is filled with small moments that add up to big impact. One moment that brings unexpected tears is when the soldiers band together to push a truck out of the mud. These men coming together for a single purpose and achieving a victory even one as small as this is a deeply moving and powerful moment of triumph. The ending has the biggest punch of all by playing it small and simple. It’s not a big moment of glory. It’s not a grand sweep of emotional heartstring plucking. It is played with the stiff upper lip reserve that the British of that time were known for. This reserve and narrative hammer fall is what really drives home the point. It doesn’t preach or sell a message. It tells its simple story and lets the hammer fall on its own.
A couple final thoughts; Roger Deakins is the cinematographer, and his work here is undeniably brilliant. His ability to create the single take effect is masterful, and his eye for haunting images is absolutely exquisite. His use of flairs to light a bombed out city is deeply moving and creates images that will live on in the audience’s minds. He is able to maintain the single take without creating a wobbly shaky cam feel. It never gets too disorienting or head ache inducing. He also never dips into video game territory. It never feels like a video game.
It’s a deeply effective film that really worked for me. I left the theater in silence as everything I just experienced settled into me. It’s definitely my cup of tea. A