Opening in Theatres March 16
By Ron Fassler
There isn’t a shot fired until seventy minutes into the war drama Journey’s End, British director Saul Dibb’s new film version of R.C. Sherriff’s old play. First produced ninety years ago in London, and then in New York, its story depicts trench warfare among a group of British soldiers in World War I. It was first filmed in 1930, directed by James Whale (Frankenstein), who also helmed the stage versions. A critically acclaimed 2007 Broadway production won the Tony Award as that season’s Best Revival, and having seen it, I can tell you it was a revelation. But plays and films are very different animals, and what Dibbs and screenwriter Simon Reade have done is to unleash a beast, elements at which the play could only hint.
The action takes place over four consecutive days as a battle is being prepared. Sherriff, who served as a captain in the East Surrey regiment, knew well the realities of the situation, in addition to understand what true camaraderie looks and feels like. But the intensity of trench warfare was unlike anything imaginable, no matter how realistically it is displayed on screen here. These were permanent systems dug into the ground, with food, ammunition, fresh troops, mail and orders delivered through them. When a young recruit, an idealist named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), volunteers for the front lines, he shows up and quickly learns the territory from his superior, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope is intense, on edge and clearly suffering the effects of the war. He is also someone in whom young Raleigh has pinned high hopes. They knew each other in private life, and Stanhope turns out to be the reason Raleigh sought out the regiment for assignment. But the elder Stanhope is burnt out, a shell of his former self, and has nothing to offer the boy. That duty is left to Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a kindly soul, who smokes his pipe as if each puff were a search for some hope of peace.
If Dunkirk was a film of action with little in the way of character development, Journeys End is all character development and little in the way of action. There are only two battles, with the majority of the film taking place underground in a cramped and claustrophobic environment. That was the beauty of the play: the intimacy of the underground bunker with all the men forced to share the tight space, fully aware of what was going on above. Psychological warfare on display in all its inherent trauma.
There are also very subtle homoerotic tensions simmering below that director Dibbs brings to the surface. It is natural for men who are forced to rely upon each other for their very survival to develop close relationships, even if nothing sexual is ever attempted. It’s one of the more successful aspects of the screenplay and it’s reflected in the beautiful acting by Bettany, Butterfield and Claflin. Butterfield, now all of twenty-one, played the lead in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo when he was fourteen. He’s wonderful in this, his face a blank slate for us to cast our own thoughts and feelings. The power of the close-up accentuates his youth and boyishness, driving home the point how innocence is destroyed by war. Claflin, who is known for roles in franchise hits like Hunger Games and Pirates of the Caribbean, has the most difficult part. His Captain Stanhope is a mass of insecurity, raging ego, unbounding courage and absolute fear—and he covers all the bases. Bettany, with a host of acting credits, A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World among them, gives a subtle and graceful performance. The cinematography by Laurie Rose, is remarkable in that it consists of two colors: brown (interior) and gray (exterior), without ever looking dull. There is only a moment of sunlight in the entire picture, and it is used to great effect. The film’s score, which mostly consists of a mournful cello, could have been overdone, but composers Hildur Guðnadóttir and Natalie Hope hit just the right notes.
Even if the beginning of Journey’s End might feel a little sluggish, it’s due to Dibbs taking his time in establishing character and mood. As the story picks up, so does the pace and the action. By the end, it packs an emotional wallop. And though that is often de rigueur for war films, this one feels different. There is no mistaking this for an honest depiction of war, with only enough sentimentality to make sure that there’s no romance to it. War is hell, and Journey’s End is a trip there and back worth taking.
The Landmark at 57 West, 657 West 57 Street, New York, NY 10019
Directed by: Saul Dibb (The Duchess)
Written by: Simon Reade (screenplay), based on the Tony Award winning play and novel by R.C. Sherriff
Cast: Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games), Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Paul Bettany (The Avengers: Age of Ultron), Toby Jones (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Tom Sturridge (On the Road) and Stephen Graham (Snatch)
Produced by: Guy de Beaujeu (Private Peaceful) and Simon Reade (What You Will)
Cinematography: Laurie Rose
Editor: Tania Reddin
Production Design: Kristian Milsted
Runtime: 107 minutes
US Distributor: Good Deed Entertainment (Loving Vincent)