1917It’s 2020. There’s a winter storm advisory in effect. What better to do than drive half an hour through snow and ice to go see a cheery movie about World War One?

Well, I have to say, icy roads notwithstanding, I’m so glad I did. By most, not all, measures this is pretty much a masterpiece of the war movie genre and probably the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing what it was like to be in the trenches in the middle of France, fighting Germans for whatever reason.

The story is a bit slight and a little too Saving Private Ryan insofar as there’s a side mission in the middle of the war involving brothers. Here we have Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and his pick of the bunch Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) kicked awake and given directions to breach enemy lines to give order to prevent a push over the top as it’s a German trap sure to cost the lives of 1,600 men including Blake’s older brother. That’s basically it. Start to finish, it could probably be adequately described in three or four paragraphs.

The story is based on fragments of tales told to director Sam Mendes by his grandfather and it’s a bit light. The acting, while adequate, is a little stilted and the dialogue a smidge Ikea, but that’s all that could potentially be viewed as negative. Everything else is bang on the mark. The tension, the stress of the movie is almost a character in itself. With the camera tracking behind our heroes we feel like participants on one hand, like controllers of video game characters on the other. Either way, it’s a hugely immersive experience down entirely to the way the movie is shot.

You may or may not have heard this — personally, I had not — but the movie is designed to appear as though it was filmed as one continuous take. There are moments where you can guess there was a cut, including an extended period of black screen and a lingering track across a wall or a tree, but if you’re not looking for it, you’re probably not going to see it. If cinematographer Roger Deakins hadn’t won an Oscar a couple of years ago for Blade Runner 2049 he would surely be a shoe-in this year. Truth be told, he should be. The way this movie is shot, the beauty in the horror of every frame, deserves the ultimate recognition. I literally have no idea how they managed to do this.

It’s surprising as much as it is shocking. Gunfire and explosions feel so real and immediate that I found myself flinching in my seat. Low flying planes and the sheer logistics of moving through barbed-wire barricades had me squirming. And then every so often, I’d remind myself that people went through this for real. People existed in trenches for weeks and months and years waiting on those whistle blasts that would send them to their deaths. It’s quite an experience, helped along its way by an incredible score.

It’s not quite a triumph but it’s worthy for any awards that happen by its way and it certainly doesn’t deserve to leave empty handed in a few weeks. It was scarier than my drive home, and that, believe me, says a lot.