A century on: a timely reminder of the futility of trench warfare.
“Journey’s End” makes for a claustrophobic and tense movie experience. It’s quite clearly a film adaptation of a stage play, but it’s a surprise (to me at least) that the stage play – penned by R.C. Sherriff – dates back to 1928 and was first performed in London by a young Laurence Olivier.
You might say “A filmed stage play? Hm… I’m not sure about that”. But actually, it works really well, adding brilliantly to the claustrophobic nature of the piece but – more importantly – largely eschewing “action scenes” to focus in on the dramatic relationships between the officers in their dugout and the men in the trenches above.
The plot is a simple one. Set in the spring of 1918 (arguably, the movie might have been even more powerful had its release been delayed by about 6 weeks), Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin, “Me Before You“, “Their Finest“) leads a company of men marching into position in a trench near Saint-Quentin, Aisne for a six-day tour of duty. Given they are one of 1,800 such companies on the Western Front, it’s unfortunately their bad luck that the German’s “spring offensive” is forecast to happen imminently. As Stanhope’s CO (the excellent Robert Glennister, “Live by Night“, TV’s “Hustle”) makes clear, and as the film’s title might also suggest, this is forecast to be a one-way trip.
With immaculate timing, squeaky-keen young recruit Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, “Hugo”) uses his brass-connections to join the company, since he knows Stanhope from his schooldays. Indeed, Stanhope is his sister’s beau. But Raleigh soon discovers that Stanhope is no longer the ‘affable chap’ he was….
Butterfield is marvelously cast as the perky new recruit, all wide-eyed and eager on arrival but completely ill-equipped for what he is to see and experience in a confined society being stretched beyond breaking point. Claflin as well is superb, and must have spent hours in front of a mirror trying to perfect his haunted expression. The range of emotions he delivers through those eyes is just extraordinary. Finally rounding out the star-turns of the officers are Paul Bettany (“Avengers: Age of Ultron“) as the avuncular Osborne and Tom Sturridge (“Far From The Madding Crowd“) as the shell-shocked and useless Hibbert.
Those of you familiar with the splendid “Black Adder Goes Forth” will know the comic role played by Tony Robinson as Baldrick with his strange culinary concoctions. In this film Toby Jones (“Atomic Blonde“, “Dad’s Army“) fills that role and similarly has some comic lines to add – just a touch of – much needed light-relief to the tension.
The film has a necessarily melancholic feel, but (for me) it’s rather over-egged by the sonorous cello score by Natalie Holt and Hildur Gudnadóttir. (Again, reflecting our different tastes, I’ll point out that my wife found the music fitting and not as annoying and intrusive as I did).
Director Sean Dibb (Suite Française) has here delivered a tense and very well-executed movie that ably demonstrates the British “stiff upper lip” in public – and the weak whiskey-soaked psychosis in private – of men under the most unbearable stress imaginable. Recommended… but go expecting something that’s more drama than World War One ‘action’.
Fad Rating: FFFF.