D: Saul Dibb / 107m
Cast: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp, Rupert Wickham
March 1918, Northern France. With rumours growing of a German push to break the deadlock that currently exists, the British have decided that each company should spend six days of every month on the Front Line. On the eighteenth it’s the turn of Company C, led by Captain Stanhope (Claflin). Once at the trenches, Stanhope and his second in command, Lieutenant Osborne (Betttany), discover that they are low on weapons, and even lower on supplies. The arrival of Second Lieutenant Ralegh (Butterfield), who was at school with Stanhope (albeit three years below him), doesn’t aid matters as Stanhope has taken to heavy drinking as a way of dealing with the stress of being in command, and he doesn’t want Ralegh writing home about him (Stanhope is in a relationship with Ralegh’s sister, Margaret). This causes a rift between them that is further abrogated when a raid is required and Ralegh returns alive, though others don’t. With the German offensive revealed to be taking place on the twenty-first, and Company C being tasked with holding the line, Stanhope and his men prepare themselves for the worst…
The fifth screen adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s play of the same name, Journey’s End relies heavily on its creator’s theatrical inspirations and presents much of the action as if this was a filmed stage production. This isn’t a bad thing on the whole, as it keeps the material confined in physical terms, making any escape from the officer’s quarters (where most of the movie takes place) or the front line trenches, entirely welcome, even though it’s likely to be fleeting. Focusing instead on the psychological damage suffered by Captain Stanhope and its effects on the officers around him, their quarters are another battleground for the group to navigate. Osborne, known as “Uncle” to the other men, is forbearing and supportive, but not so forgiving when Stanhope acts in bad faith, as when he plans to read, and censor if necessary, Ralegh’s letters home. Trotter (Graham) is the brunt of Stanhope’s unkind jokes but seems inured to them, while Hibbert (Sturridge) has his own struggles, and tries to avoid fighting by claiming an illness. Ralegh has a bad case of hero worship, and has a hard time getting to grips with a much different Stanhope than the one he knew in school. As the fateful day approaches, Stanhope’s anger and self-loathing at the man he’s become is displayed in markedly different ways, and with markedly different results.
By retaining the close quarters and intense emotional outbursts that Stanhope has no choice but to express, Simon Reade’s anxiety-inducing screenplay and Saul Dibb’s assured direction maintain a tight grip on the narrative, and make this adaptation genuinely affecting. Any melodramatics are kept to a minimum, and the claustrophobic setting adds its own power to the mix, but its the performances that elevate the familiarity of the material and make it impactful. Claflin takes Stanhope’s self-hatred and sense of duty and makes them two sides of a divided character whose commitment is never in doubt even as he spirals ever further towards self-destruction. Butterfield as Ralegh is the perfect embodiment of innocence informed by inexperience and boyish exuberance, while Bettany is quiet and contemplative, yet just as aware that a soldier can only count on so much luck to survive the absurdities thrown up by war (and so it proves). Even down to the supporting roles, the movie is perfectly cast (Jones is particularly memorable as the dyspeptic cook, Mason), so that when the raid, and then the offensive, actually put them at risk, the movie has succeeded in making the viewer care about them. The story may not be new any more, but this is one version that succeeds by acknowledging this and relying on Sherriff’s original themes to get its message across – and it does so with passion and conviction.
Rating: 8/10 – with a necessarily gloomy visual style to support the gravity of the characters’ situation, Journey’s End isn’t interested in the politics of the era, or the stupidity of the military top brass (though these are accepted), but in the hopes and fears, and the camaraderie, of the men who fought so bravely; fatalistic and yet strangely optimistic as well, this is affecting and sincere, and a powerful reminder – if it were needed – that in war the idea of “winners” is patently, and utterly absurd.