‘Journey's End’ is a British film adaptation of the famed 1928 play of the same title by R. C. Sherriff, which originally starred Laurence Olivier. Written by Simon Reade and directed by Saul Dibb, this is the fifth film adaptation of the play, including ‘The Other Side’ (1931) and ‘Aces High’ (1976).
‘Journey's End’ tells the story of a company of soldiers who are posted in Saint-Quentin during World World I and follows the real-life events of Operation Michael. The story plays out almost entirely in the British trenches and officers' dugout over four days from the 18th March 1918 to 21st March 1918. A German attack is imminent and the men attempt to maintain a semblance of normalcy with their routines.
It mainly focuses on the relationship between newly-arrived Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, ‘Ender's Game’) and the hero from his schoolboy rugby days, the now leader of C-Company, Captain Dennis Stanhope (Sam Claflin, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’, ‘My Cousin Rachel’). When Raleigh arrives, however, he finds that Stanhope is no longer the same person he knew from school as the experiences of war have changed him.
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Elem Klimov’s ‘Come and See’ is the most stifling, uncomfortable and panic-inducing war film you are ever likely to watch. ‘Journey’s End’ is nowhere near that level of filmmaking, but the tension does become unbearable, especially during a “surprise daylight raid” on a German trench, as the soldiers crawl through a battlefield against their own survival instincts.
In terms of scale, this film is the anti-‘Dunkirk’. Far from Christopher Nolan’s widescreen action, director Saul Dibb and cinematographer Laurie Rose have created a sense of extreme confinement. This allows ‘Journey’s End’ to hone in on small character moments, like the paternal way Second Lieutenant Trotter (Stephen Graham, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales’) tries to give Raleigh a few more hours to be a boy before his inevitable loss of innocence.
‘Journey’s End’ is all about strong actors relishing emotional dialogue, bristling their moustaches and manfully stiffening their upper lips. Like the soldiers manning the trench, there are no weak links in the performances. Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge (‘Mary Shelley’), and Toby Jones (‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’) are excellent. An always amazing Paul Bettany (‘Avengers: Infinity War’) as the weary, knowing Lieutenant Osborne is the highlight, with the biggest surprise coming from Sam Claflin as Captain Stanhope.
‘Journey’s End’ is all about strong actors relishing emotional dialogue, bristling their moustaches and manfully stiffening their upper lips. In terms of performances, there are no weak links.
Stanhope is the film’s most complex character. Plagued by the pressures and deaths caused by war and the impending attack by the Germans, Stanhope becomes an alcoholic who is irrational and highly volatile. Despite this, every morning he leaves the officer’s dugout and walks the trenches, greeting the soldiers with banter and a smile plastered on his face, inspiring the soldiers with his confidence and capability.
In contrast to Stanhope, who is buckling under the immense pressures of war, Bettany’s Osborne is a strong second-in-command for the officer and his company, reflected by his nickname, Uncle. Throughout a film rife with chaos, tension and uncertainty, Uncle, a former public school master, is a reminder that there is still humanity and decency left in the world. Osborne even defends Stanhope from criticism from his fellow officers, describing him as “the best company commander we've got”.
Finally, Asa Butterfield uses his gangly limbs, large eyes and expressive features to maximum effect as the idealistic Raleigh. In one scene, we watch his initial enthusiasm silently curdle into confusion and then dread as he prepares to run into a smoky battlefield to capture an enemy soldier.
‘Journey’s End’ isn’t an epic, guns-blazing war film. Instead, it’s a hard-hitting, timeless exploration of the psychological impact of fear and the struggle to remain brave, which benefits greatly from a talented cast, including career-best performances from Claflin and Bettany.