The latest film adaptation of R. C. Sheriff’s influential 1928 play Journey’s End, directed for the fifth time by Saul Dibb, will be released to coincide with the centenary of WW1, commemorating those who died fighting in the fatal ‘Spring Offensive’. Following the C Company, headed by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), the film focuses on their temporary but deadly stint in the front-line trenches. A German attack has been rumoured for several weeks, but as the group arrive on the 17th of March, military action is now imminent. With no chance of escape, refuge or back-up from the British Army, the trenches become a terrifying holding spot for the men as they await their inevitable fate. Although the narrative’s conclusion is (fairly…) obvious and thus predictable and there are limitations to the film’s landscape (it rarely leaves the Officer’s underground bunker or the surrounding dugout), what ensures Dibb’s film remains compelling and impactful is how each member of the squadron deals with their circumstances. Unlike large-scale epic Dunkirk, Journey’s End is a far more personal study of the psychological effects of war. Although it approaches similar narrative content, such as the imminent but unseen German threat and the experience of war through different army rankings in the British Army, Dibb opts for a more intimate and touching study.
The ensemble cast is faultless, with each stellar performance providing a different viewpoint on how men handle the atrocities of war; ranging from anger and denial to naivety and humour. Headed by Claflin as the war-torn, raging alcoholic Stanhope, this is a role finally showcasing his ability to lead, with his domineering presence a full tour-de-force of psychological damage and disarray. Yet despite the cruel exterior, there is a tenderness which seeps out in moments of tragedy, showing the heartbreaking effects war has on the human condition, as he screams ‘do you think there is no limit to how much a man can take?’. Paul Bettany as Officer Osborne also provides a powerful performance, but instead showcases a man much more accepting of his circumstances, remaining calm in the face of brutal adversity and bravely confronting the soldier’s inevitable end without respite or anger. As Osborne marches towards the frontline for an orchestrated raid on the German trenches, the camera follows his feet as they move through the thickened muddy pathways whilst his farewells to the company are audible, offering one of the film’s most subtly touching moments; acceptance of one’s fate is perhaps the saddest but strongest feat a man can make.
But it is in Asa Butterfield’s performance as Officer Raleigh, the youngest and newest member of the squadron, our affiliation is closest too. Deliberately situating himself within the dangers of the frontline only weeks after graduating from officer training just to be close to Stanhope, an old senior friend from college, his hopefulness is most tragic. Initially referring to the raid as ‘frightfully exciting’, his bodily reaction to the reality of the situation by throwing up before jumping over the enemy line is a hard watch, offering the stark reality of how so many innocent men bravely signed up to war with no concept of the diabolical realities awaiting them. Shunned by Stanhope, a now deeply changed man through the effects of alcoholism and war, Raleigh quickly shapes up to the realities awaiting him and the loss of his naivety is the film’s final signal the Company C’s end is nigh.
Thankfully, comic relief can be found in various characters, a necessary component of such a dark and troubling tale. Without some degree of humour, the narrative would seep into almost unwatchable, the imminent attack so intense and foreboding it is at times relentless. Yet both Toby Jones and Stephen Graham’s performances are brilliant components, with the former’s inadequate but devoted chef Mason providing a much-needed chuckle and the latter’s surprisingly cheerful Officer Trotter a positive influence on the group’s dire situation.
Admittedly not for everyone and in no way perfect, this film may not be appreciated by critics and audiences alike. At times the set can feel staged and clunky, especially in comparison to the big-budget scale of Dunkirk, and the characters may appear generic or stereotypical. But the incredible performances and some very beautiful and haunting cinematic shots mean this definitely isn’t one to be missed. It is a touching, respectful and above all else honest depiction of one of the worst attacks in British history, and is the perfect commemoration to those who sadly lost their lives in the Spring of 1918. Bring tissues.
Dir: Saul Dibb
Cast: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Asa Butterfield, Tom Sturridge, Stephen Graham
Scr: Simon Reade
Prod: Guy de Beaujeu, Simon Reade
Year: Original release 2017, release 2018
Run-time: 107 mins
Journey’s End is nationally released in cinemas on February 2nd.