Journey's End Review
100 years ago, this November, the First World War ended. Up to 19,174,335 lives are thought to have been lost, with countless others affected physically and psychologically by the conflict. From the trench poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, many works of literature and writing came out of the war or were inspired by the scope of humanity and horrors that people encountered. Of these works RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End is a key tragic piece, derived from his own experiences. It first premiered on stage in 1929, has been adapted to screen four times previously, and now is brought to the screen once again by director Saul Dibb.
The story follows a group of officers on the front at the beginning of the 1918 Spring Offensive; innocent and fresh faced Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), alcoholic and damaged Stanhope (Sam Claflin), warm “Uncle” Osborne (Paul Bettany), jovial and food motivated Trotter (Stephen Graham), and the damaged and fearful Hibbert (Tom Sturridge). Together they face the reality of duty and war, and the bleak horrors that it brings.
This is a movie about waiting. The officers are waiting for an attack that they know is coming but aren’t initially sure when it will arrive, a turn at the front is a sentence in limbo, with every hour holding the possibility of sudden activity that could mean a painful death. It is no surprise that the average life expectancy for an officer at the front was six weeks and it is a limited life expectancy that every character is fully aware of, making every interaction and goodbye heavy with the knowledge that it might be the last.
Everything is so close; the trench walls, the other men, even the German trench is merely metres away. While the film opens out the action of the play - which took place entirely in the officer’s dugout - it creates a claustrophobia that is palpable, sets you on edge and really puts you there. This almost docudrama feel is helped even more by the fact that director Dibb shot the dugout scenes entirely through natural and candle lighting, making for some beautiful and engaging cinematography. You inhabit every frame of this movie to the point that you can almost feel the mud and grime under your own fingernails.
All of that would not work, however, without a core of strong performances to support it, and luckily this has that readily. Between this and last year’s My Cousin Rachel Sam Claflin is really proving himself a formidable presence and talent, and his Stanhope is a man barely holding himself together, made worse by the lack of equipment and the callousness of the higher ups’ lack of regard for him and his soldiers. He is good man beaten down to the point that he is no longer who he once was and is sickened by it, something that Raleigh, an underclassman at school (and the younger brother of the woman Stanhope had intended to marry) is a constant reminder of thus throwing Stanhope into even more turmoil.
Asa Butterfield as Raleigh is a steady presence, and it is through his eyes that we experience the rise and, then, fall of optimism and innocence in the face of combat. The real emotional heart of the film, however, is Paul Bettany as Osborne. His warmth and reassurance along with a sensible head is what is holding the group of officers together. He gives them brief moments that alleviates fear and allows for the briefest of reprieves, something they are all so desperate for. Backed up by stalwarts of British screen like Stephen Graham and Toby Jones, who as Private Mason the officers’ cook also gives a sense of the differences in class and rank within the dugout, it is a cast that brings the full fore of the story to sincere and genuine life.
Whilst it is true that a lot of the stories of the First World War have been told time and time again there is something to be said for a story that is retold so well, and that is exactly what Journey’s End is. It is an emotional and dramatic account of the waste of human life made with precision and skill, lest we forget the harsh lessons that were so brutally taught 100 years ago.