‘I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.” – Harry Patch, the last surviving combat soldier of the First World War.
‘Journey’s End’ is the fifth adaptation of R.C. Sheriff’s 1928 dramatic play by the same name. Directed by Saul Dibb, the film is set during the latter stages of the First World War. In March 1918, the soldiers of the British Army situated in St Quentin are made aware by their high command of impending attacks on their trench line by the German army, in a last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war. It is at this point that an adolescent and naïve Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is posted to ‘C’ company to tie up with an old friend in Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope is noticeably a changed man to what Raleigh remembers: it is quite clear that Stanhope has accepted his fate of death, becoming an alcoholic, a pessimist and a defeatist. With the attacks later becoming known as the ‘Spring Offensive’, ‘Journey’s End’ follows the experiences of the officers in the British Army Infantry ‘C’ Company in the days leading up to what some believe will be their likely deaths.
Saul Dibb’s directing is sheer class in illustrating the true nature of war through the lives lived in the trenches. By managing the relationships of the main characters in a respectable way, he skilfully demonstrates how the experience of war can have such an impact on the human mind; often to the extent where the soldier is a shell of what they used to be. Dibb also cleverly creates and brings together the daily squalor and drudgery of the trenches and the varying perspectives of the five officers of ‘C’ company. A range between the two extremes of emotion is captured and the way in which the film builds tension towards the inevitable German raid makes ‘Journey’s End’ Incredibly gripping. Reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’, it is not depicted through rose-tinted glasses. It is not adapted to defy its history just to make a ‘good film’. It is portrayed through the stripped back, intense and brutal storytelling of the lives of those on the frontline – it is this that really makes ‘Journey’s End’ truly unforgettable.
Just as the directing is magnificent, so too is the writing. Simon Reade does a wonderful job in guiding familiar characters towards a fresh revival for the big screen. Though a cinematic experience is always going to differ from the stage, Reade succeeds in maintaining camaraderie among characters such as Stanhope, Raleigh and Osborne whilst adding aspects of his own new interpretations to their personas. Reade’s dialogue throughout this film evokes a real sense of intimacy among those living in such an abject and confined space. For the viewer, he smoothly conveys a wide variety of issues that Great War soldiers were subjected to in terms of social class, un-recognised mental health issues and unequivocal fear.
Ros and John Hubbard as Casting directors are due a huge amount of credit for gathering the ensemble of actors they have. In particular, Sam Claflin as Stanhope and Paul Bettany as Osbourne are outstanding. Both actors perfectly convey all of the emotions and states of mind men in their respective positions must have gone through: Stanhope is the leader of the company with Osbourne his second in command. They engage the emotions of the viewer effortlessly and give Oscar-worthy performances. As for the rest of the cast, Toby Jones plays a more switched on and serious Baldrick type of character. Stephen Graham as Trotter is great as the ‘c’mon lads let’s just bloody well get on with it’ type scouser. The only concern across the entire film, however, was Asa Butterfield’s portrayal as Raleigh. At times, his somewhat robotic delivery and movement made it difficult to become fully invested in his character. Nevertheless, he grows into the role and Butterfield saves himself with a fantastic emotionally charged last scene.
‘Journey’s End’ is a vibrant, moving and powerful film. Its considerate, raw nature makes for a thrilling and humbling viewing experience. As far as Great British dramas go, this has to be one of the best. War is a horrifically saddening by-product of human existence, ‘Journey’s End’ classily and respectfully highlights how precious life truly is through the means of an extremely harrowing piece of cinema.
By Blair Macbride