Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Saul Dibb
Stars: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Graham, Rupert Wickham.
A timely release sees this powerful and moving drama about the horrors of war, the senseless slaughter of a generation of young men, and the futility of it all, reach our screens to commemorate the centenary of the end of WWI, “the war to end all wars.”
Journey’s End is an unflinchingly honest and raw look at the awful conditions of life in the trenches for the soldiers, and immerses audiences in the mud, the daily deprivation, and the tension of waiting for action. It also captures their feelings of vulnerability and fear. When the enemy shells rain down the soldiers in the trenches are sitting ducks. It also shows the class system at work, even in the British army, with the troops roughing it in the trenches while the officers enjoyed some small measures of comfort in their relatively dry and warm living quarters with drinks, and food prepared by their own cook.
There have been many films that have explored the hardships of life in the trenches and the horrors of WWI, including Stanley Kubrick’s blistering anti-war drama Paths Of Glory, Peter Weir’s haunting Gallipoli, Beneath Hill 60, etc. This is a bleak and sombre drama that once again revisits this fertile territory and again serves a potent and humane and timely antiwar message.
Journey’s End is set in Aisne, in northern France in March 1918, a mere six months before the end of the war. The Germans are mounting their Spring offensive, and C Company, a weary troop of British soldiers, are preparing to defend their territory. Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, from Hugo, etc) is a newly minted 19-year old soldier fresh out of school. He has prevailed upon his uncle, a general, to send him to unit where Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, from Their Finest, etc) serves. Stanhope was his former house master at school and is also courting his older sister. Raleigh is optimistic and eager to see action. But when he arrives at the front, he sees Stanhope as a bitter shell of a man, an alcoholic and paranoid, cynical soldier shaken by his experiences of the war.
Journey’s End is based on the play written by R C Sheriff in 1928, a decade after the end of the war, and was based on his own experiences as a soldier in the frontlines. Sheriff (who also wrote the classic WWII drama The Dambusters in 1955) also turned the play into a novel, which was co-written by Vernon Bartlett. It was originally filmed in 1930 by James Whale. This latest version has been adapted to the screen by Simon Reade (Private Peaceful, etc), and has been directed by Saul Dibb (The Duchess, etc).
Dibb draws solid performances from the cast. Butterfield again impresses with his strong performance as the eager and somewhat naïve and doomed Raleigh who is unprepared for what he experiences. Claflin is excellent in capturing the damaged and disillusioned Stanhope and effectively conveys his deteriorating mental state. Toby Jones brings some welcome touches of humour to his role as Mason, the unit’s cook, while Tom Sturridge offers strong support as Hibberd, another officer who has been left shell shocked. Paul Bettany (from the Avengers series, etc) plays Osborne, a sympathetic and avuncular officer who is Stanhope’s second-in-command.
Dibb gives the film a suitably claustrophobic feel as much of the action is set within the confines of the trenches. Dibb and Reade have maintained much of the source’s dialogue and theatrical nature, but they do occasionally open the material up with a couple of scenes set on the battlefield and in the bloody no-man’s land between the trenches. The film spans six days, and Reade and Dibb break the film up into small chapters which adds to the mounting tension as we know an attack is imminent. Dibb and Reade also get inside the psyche of these traumatised characters as they talk and interact while waiting for action.
Production designer Kristian Milsted (the tv series Utopia, etc) has given the muddy trenches a gritty, grimy authenticity. The film has been nicely shot by cinematographer Laurie Rose (the tv series Peaky Blinders, etc) who effectively uses tracking shots to take us through the trenches. Natalie Holt’s string driven orchestral score is atmospheric and enhances the melancholic mood of the film.