PRACTICE makes breathlessly choreographed and nail-bitingly tense perfection in Sam Mendes’s thriller, inspired by stories of The Great War told by the director’s grandfather, who served as a lance corporal.

Shot in real-time in several exquisitely staged single takes, 1917 is the product of six months of intense rehearsals and preparation.

The cast undertook daily military drills in hobnail boots, acclimatising to the weight of uniforms and weapons before filming began so it would become second nature to check bayonets as hell unfolded around them.

This pre-production period allowed Mendes to work closely with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins to meticulously map out the intricate camerawork of each sequence, where bullets scythe through the air and blood seeps into shifting seas of thick mud.

It’s a tour-de-force of technical daring, which repeatedly dazzles and dumbfounds, juxtaposing heart-breaking brutality and self-sacrifice with moments of dreamy, poetic introspection.

Mendes’s script, co-written by Krysty Wilson-Cairns, oscillates between agonising suspense and ominous calm. This is visceral, gut-wrenching filmmaking that marches us into battle in uncomfortable proximity to the characters, compelling us to hold our breaths for long stretches of the two hours.

Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) begin April 6, 1917 in peaceful slumber against a tree as thunder rumbles in the distance.

The men are roused to receive orders from General Erinmore (Colin Firth), who must prevent Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) from leading The 2nd Devons into a trap set by the Germans. The Germans have severed all telephone lines so the only way to warn them is to dispatch Blake and Schofield on foot into enemy territory to reach Mackenzie before dawn, when the fateful order will be given to attack the line.

1917 unfolds in real-time, pushing actors to the physical limit as we plunge headfirst through the emotional wringer with them, experiencing similar dizzying gut-punches as tragedy stalks their odyssey.

Thomas Newman’s orchestral score possesses the urgency of a ticking pocket watch, underscoring Mendes’s directorial brio and devastating performances from Chapman and MacKay in an intimate tale of valour that sears into memory.

RATING: 9/10