I was very fortunate to attended the premier of Journey’s End. In attendance were director Saul Dibb, writer Simon Reade, and actors Sam Claflin and Toby Jones. The film is of course an adaptation of the RC Sherriff play of the same name.
A group of British officers and soldiers in the First World War await an enemy attack. Sam Claflin plays Captain Stanhope whose men hate trench life. He has resorted to alcoholism to escape the horrors of the war, much to the chagrin of the fatherly Osborne played by Paul Bettany. When a figure from Stanhope’s past, the young officer Raleigh played by Asa Butterfield, arrives in the trenches he is forced to realise how much he has changed.
Although a great deal of the film occurs in one location this does not feel like a film that has been adapted from a play (See Roman Polanski’s Carnage). The full scope of the momentous setting is explored. The trenches are claustrophobic and yet feel labyrinthine. The cinematography by Laurie Rose keeps the action close to our characters, recalling the over-the-shoulder camerawork of Son of Saul (2015, directed by Laszlo Nemes).
The power of the movie comes from how perfectly cast it is. Sam Claflin continues to prove his worth post-hunger games as the utterly haunted Captain Stanhope. He maintains his fragility even during his moments of rage. The scene in which he uttered assurances to men he didn’t expect to return from no man’s land is truly heart-breaking. Paul Bettany gives his best performance in years as Osborne, a man of quiet reassurance and incredible kindness. His performance is understated and masterful.
Asa Butterfield is also remarkable as the young Raleigh, an officer of sometimes comic naiveté who very quickly is immersed in the horrors of the trench. Toby Jones offers a small measure of comic relief as the chef who regularly messes up the company’s food. Stephen Graham goes against type as a relentlessly cheerful and supportive soldier named Trotter. He comes to represent the spirit of the men. I found myself very affected by these men and greatly invested in their safety.
The film is all about the anticipation of action. It’s the boredom of fear. One scene in particular recalled Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Men sadly and fearfully anticipate their probable deaths. The actual combat scenes are fairly brief and shot with shaky cam to invoke a sense of chaos. They are suitably terrifying.
The play is nearly ninety years old, yet the film feels incredibly relevant. In interview Dibb and Reade were keen to point out the contemporary relevance of a film about the absurdity of war. Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, we see very little of the “enemy” during the film. Danger comes from mortar shells and sniper bullets. The effect is to not show the danger of any one force or nation but rather to portray War as the ultimate enemy.
The film works as a beautiful character study and an absorbing thriller. It’s well acted and beautifully directed.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the host of the podcast One Good Thing.