Journey's End Review
Beautifully acted and expertly shot, this World War I drama brings a sense of the theatre to the big screen.
The 100th anniversary of World War I’s end is as good a time as any to revisit the horrors of war.Journey’s End is an adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play, which has been revived and reperformed many times over the last 90 years. The play was based on Sheriff’s own experiences in the trenches, and both the play and this film are imbued with an astonishing sense of realism, that allows the experiences of the real historical people to be represented without the action feeling gratuitous.Asa Butterfield is Raleigh, a young Second Lieutenant fresh on the front. Caught up in youthful enthusiasm, he requests a placement in the trenches, with Sam Claflin’s Captain Stanhope. Stanhope, who Raleigh knows as a winsome go-getter, has been changed by the war; away from the starry-eyed youngsters he commands, he’s an embittered, enraged, alcohol-addicted man old before his time.
This is the simplistic beauty of Sherriff’s original play, which is trimmed and pretty faithfully transferred to the screen by Simon Reade; the sheer horror, the banal awfulness, the terrible truth of war.
This film may not add anything at all new to the canon of war films, but it’s effective at what it does. Saul Dibb’s directing is masterful, allowing a few big-action battle scenes their cinematic glory, but applying just as much consideration to scenes of inner tribulation, verbal conflict and the general quiet suffering of the men in the trenches. This is a war film, but it’s about more than battle; it’s about the inner turmoil of the men who fought the war, and the real toll of their situation on their minds and spirits.
Laurie Rose’s cinematography is understatedly neutral, omnipresent and observing; intimate conversations and fraught scenes on the battlefield are paid equal and careful attention, with a rich colour palette and tightly framed scenes. Sound design is used effectively, with most of the violence and horror of battle shown audibly rather than visually. Though this is generally a welcome solace from modern cinema’s obsession with heavy CGI and push-the-boundaries gore, there are moments in this film where an actual shot of warfare might have added to the ambience.
The film’s casting is excellent – although there are several familiar faces in the ensemble, each role feels harrowingly relatable and real. Claflin gives the performance of his career so far as the broken Stanhope; he conveys the prim and proper Captain with ease, tempering these scenes with plenty of devastated, haggard, soulful and seriously haunting ones.
This is a war film but it’s as much about the real toll of battle on the minds and spirits of the men
Another great performance comes from Paul Bettany, whose Lieutenant Osbourne is a friendly face for Raleigh as he finds his feet amongst the beleaguered troops. Claflin and Butterfield play off each other excellently, with the latter portraying bright-eyed and young enthusiasm without the foolish naivety that often comes with these types of roles.
Stanhope’s men must spend six days at the front, believing that a German attack is imminent. This diegetic foreboding works surprisingly authentically for the audience, too. The sense of danger is heightened, and each section of the film – representing one day at the front – becomes more and more tense. There is something unshakeably theatrical about the film, though this doesn’t detract from the storytelling too much.
This isn’t reinventing the wheel, and the film probably doesn’t really add much to an already over-crowded genre. But it’s a timely film, an accomplished piece of cinema that’s complemented by excellent performances. The film does its source material proud, and is at its core a rousing film about the human condition; it’s certainly not light-hearted viewing, but it’s well worth a sobering watch.
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