We are barely into January and there is already a contender for one of the best films of 2020.

Co-written and directed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall, Jarhead), 1917 follows two young soldiers during World War I, Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), who are tasked with delivering a vital message to a distant British regiment that are about to unknowingly walk into a German trap. 1600 lives, including Blake’s older brother, depend on the boys successfully making it through No Man’s Land alive, and the clock is ticking…

Masterfully shot to create the illusion of one long, continuous take – with just one obvious cut to create the transition from day to night –1917 is a thoroughly immersive and often gruelling induction into the theatre of war. The audience navigates the circuitous trenches and muddy battlefields behind enemy lines right alongside the protagonists, and while you’ll be on the lookout for edits, the effect is remarkably seamless.

MacKay and Chapman possess a youthful vulnerability that makes them look better suited to a Harry Potter film than traversing an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of ruined French villages, barbed wire coils and putrefying corpses. There’s a real sense that this ill-prepared pair may not make it. And while the camera never leaves them, the supporting cast that drift in and out of their orbit is equally strong, featuring British veterans like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong.

In dutifully capturing the spirit of his grandfather’s experiences in the Great War, Mendes has delivered a modern war movie that matches the intimacy and sustained intensity of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, albeit with several lulls to allow the audience to catch its collective breath. The personal approach drives home the horror of war and the humanity that is frequently overwhelmed by the visual spectacle of battle.   

Some films you watch, others you experience; 1917 is one of the latter, and should be seen on the big screen for maximum impact. Technically complex and narratively simple, this is exemplary filmmaking that celebrates heroism, and cinema as an art form.

In cinemas: January 9, 2020
Starring: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Colin Firth
Directed by: Sam Mendes