As we settle into 2018, it’s frankly quite baffling to both understand and realise that this year marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War. I’m not going to sit here and write about the universally understood devastation, death and heartache that the war brought to millions of people because honestly, what could I say that hasn’t already been said and how could I even begin to understand just what the soldiers and their loved ones truly went through? What I am going to do though, is talk about Saul Dibb’s excellent attempt to tell the story of the British soldiers in the trenches ahead of the German Spring Offensive, in which he manages to do almost the impossible, understand what the soldiers did go through.
Journey’s End is Lionsgate’s big screen adaption of the play of the same name by RC Sherriff and the novel by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett. Starring a wonderful line up of excellent British talent, Journey’s End tells the story of Captain Stanhope’s (Sam Claflin) C-company who are about to start their six day stint in the trenches ahead of an imminent German offensive. Joining their company is young new officer Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who knew Stanhope through their time at school together and is the brother of Stanhope’s love back in England. Raleigh’s enthusiasm and excitement to be a part of the war sees him become popular with both the soldiers and the older officers but Stanhope is confused as to why Raleigh has joined the company at this particular time and is scared that the war-torn Officer Raleigh sees is no longer the same man his sister is waiting for back in England. As C-company settle in to their surroundings and as the days go by, tensions in the trenches rise and panic sets in ahead of the imminent German attack.
Journey’s End is unusual for a film set in the war. The pace of the film is slow and for anyone in the audience going who is expecting to see a film littered with expensive special effects and action film cliche’s, it might surprise you to know that the first real bit of fighting comes around an hour in to the film. The British soldiers heading into no mans’ land to bring back a German soldier to interrogate is the most visually exciting part of the film and is perfectly placed for those wanting to see some action. For those, like me however, who are just as happy to see the tensions slowly rise between British Officers as the days slowly go by will absolutely understand why Dibbs’ direction and the pace of the film itself is so effective. It’s so refreshing to see a war film nail the feelings of loss and confusion from the soldiers perspective and seeing as though 90% of the film is set within the Officer’s bunker, you are absolutely drawn into their reality and experience their anger and sadness at their situation and the fact that this comes across so evidently on screen is a huge compliment to Dibbs’ direction.
The performances are excellent and the cast is the almost the perfect line-up of underrated British talent. Stephen Graham and Toby Jones break up the tension in their roles of Trotter and Chef Mason respectively as they both give their best stiff upper lip and ‘could be worse’ attitudes. Tom Sturridge does his best to annoy pretty much everyone Officer as Hibbert with tales of his womanising ways back home and weak attempt to be sent home through illness and Asa Butterfield’s cheerful naivety is actually annoyingly infectious, but in the good way of course. The highlights of the cast though are without doubt Paul Bettany and Sam Claflin. Bettany’s performance as Officer ‘Uncle’ is just so enjoyable to watch; his knowledgable and firm but relaxed approach to the rest of the soldiers, Officers and the war itself epitomises how you’d expect an English gentleman would be when forced into fighting for his country. There’s a wonderful scene between Uncle and Raleigh as they prepare to go over the top into no man’s land where Raleigh is so keen to ask questions about the mission and Uncle, a more experienced and older fighter who realises exactly what going over the top means does his best to make the last six minutes of safety talk about anything but war in a matter-of-fact way in a very poignant moment. Heading the bill of British talent is Sam Claflin who gives a superb portrayal of war-weary Captain Stanhope. Claflin’s performance sees him switch between a calm, compassionate and engaging Captain to a raging, drunk, anxious and terrified man effortlessly and it’s incredible to watch. One moment you’ll see him raging and threatening to kill his own Officers and the next you’ll see him break down in front of his men, embarrassed and ashamed of the man he’s become and the honesty of his performance is exceptional.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Journey’s End is just how effectively Dibb has managed to truly make the story about the men who fought in the war. It is so rare to see a war film take on such a responsibility to actually just tell their story and not that of the war itself. Obviously, none of us can ever understand just what the soldiers in the trenches went through but this film does make you feel like you’re there. Journey’s End is not your average war film and although the pace of the film is slow, it’s an excellent piece of Cinema that will stay with you for a while after watching it.
Journey’s End is released in cinemas Nationwide on Friday 2nd February by Lionsgate. Watch the trailer here