Film Review: Journey’s End

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 29 Jan 2018

RC Sherriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End, which depicts a group of soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, has been adapted in various forms over the years, although my first experience of the story was this latest version, directed by Saul Dibb, who most recently made Suite Française.

It features an impressive British cast playing a company of soldiers whose turn it is to man a trench in northern France in the final stretches of the war. Companies of soldiers have been required to take it in turns manning the position for six days at a time, each praying that a rumoured German offensive isn’t launched while it’s their turn. The drama, which takes place almost entirely within the trench and its officers quarters, is laden with the weight of what may or may not be coming for these men.

Sam Claflin stars as Captain Stanhope, a respected soldier whose mental faculties have been damaged by his time on the frontlines, and lack of leave. His second in command is Osborne (Paul Bettany), an affable and welcoming veteran upon whom stewardship of the outfit’s youngest and newest member, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), will fall.

The film is divided into sections, each depicting one day of the six that these soldiers are to endure in the cold squalor of the trench, waiting for an attack that may or may not come. Trains creak ominously over rails somewhere in the distance, likely delivering German reinforcements, and occasional pockets of gunfire/artillery in the distance set the tone.

The brief action scenes are shot in a purposefully removed way, implying rather than showing what is taking place

It’s a claustrophobic setting and the anticipation of the attack lends the film a brooding quality that I found worked rather well, heightened at times by the subtly foreboding score. At times I felt the film lacked a bit of detail on everyday life in the trenches, because the vast majority of it is set in the comparatively cosy officers’ quarters, where food and drink is regularly available courtesy of Toby Jones’ comic-relief cook Mason, whose ingredients are regularly called into question.

But Dibb’s film shows enough of life outside that we know what we’re dealing with, and lets the drama unfold in an unfussy way that relies on dialogue in place of action. The brief action scenes that are shown are shot in a purposefully removed way, implying rather than showing what is taking place, with the camera focusing on the reactions of the soldiers and the violence expressed primarily through the sound effects. It’s a technique that generally works, although it does diminish the impact of those scenes a little. One event in particular lacks the profundity it might have had if it was shown.

The scenes in the trench work because the cast is likeable and on good form. Claflin and Butterfield are effective, respectively, as the broken captain and the young boy eager to contribute, even if the depiction of the Stanhope character is perhaps a little too reliant on facial tics to portray inner turmoil. But Claflin does a good job overall, and gets a nicely observed speech about “sticking at it” that emerges as a key piece of dialogue, delivered well. He is nicely offset by a lovely performance from Paul Bettany as a man whose exterior warmth and avuncular qualities perhaps belie an unseen darkness inside.

For all the film’s quality acting and careful setup, I found it lacked the emotional payoff I was expecting and wanting from filmmaking of this calibre, though that isn’t to say there aren’t moments of well-observed pathos in there. Ev en if Journey’s End will perhaps not be remembered as a classic of the genre, it is nevertheless a well made war film that with good performances that is worth checking out.

3/5

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