Film review | Journey’s End
For too long Journey’s End has just been another play on the school syllabus. Now, this all-star cast brings to life a tense, moving and at times bleakly funny piece of drama on the big screen.
Saul Dibb’s stark new film adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s seminal stage play is riveting, tender, funny and heartbreakingly sad. Taking place over four days in the officer’s dugout, it recounts the suspenseful wait for an attack on the British trenches in March 1918. The company of soldiers is led by Stanhope, an embittered, alcoholic veteran of the war - although still in his 20s and still admired by his men. A young officer (and brother of Stanhope’s sweetheart) who looked up Stanhope at school contrives to have himself sent to the same company.
The cinematography has a desolate beauty to it – from the soldiers marching down to the trenches through the long grass, to the trenches themselves, which are a hellish quagmire. Toby Jones is magnificent as Mason – instantly likeable as the company cook, short on provisions, hugely funny, but made into a more fully realised character than in the play. Paul Bettany could not be bettered as Osbourne; immensely human and the calm centre of the storm.
Asa Butterfield gives a thoughtful and mature performance as Raleigh, the schoolboy who looks up to Stanhope, while losing nothing of his wide-eyed innocence. Hibbert is sympathetically portrayed – genuinely shell-shocked; an ordinary, educated man in an absurdly dangerous and unreal situation. Sam Claflin is spellbinding as Stanhope, the captain under intense pressure. There is great nuance and range in his portrayal; the care for his men really shines through, underlined by knowing each man’s name. But it’s the tender moments with Hibbert and Raleigh, and being put to bed by Osborne, where he really got the heart of the role.
There is a great attention to detail through the film, whether that’s the dying embers left flickering in a pipe or a ring and watch left by Osbourne for his wife. There is also strong use of colour. The dishing out of the blood red rum is full of foreboding as the build up to the raid begins.
The narrative rolls forward relentlessly and there is an excellent balance of interior and exterior scenes so it never feels stagey. The music has a warped, harrowing edge that mirrors some of the effective hallucinatory scenes, which again make it feel genuinely filmic. The new characters, particularly the sergeant major, help fill the imaginative vacuum left in the play, which was originally restricted to a single set and small group of actors.
As a reminder of the horrors of war and the human stories that lie at the heart of it, Journey’s End is an important, emotional and highly engaging piece of work.