Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, and Paul Bettany deliver terrific performances in a thought-provoking, theatrical World War I drama.
Journey’s End doesn’t match the description of a typical war movie. In fact, scenes of actual warfare make up, I reckon, fewer than five minutes of the film’s runtime. We only see one enemy soldier, briefly, and his only line is, “Nein!” In lieu of heavy combat, Journey’s End befits its title by shifting focus to the dread before the storm, rather than its violent conclusion.
If this all sounds like it would be better suited to a stage play, it was indeed based on one (R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play of the same name). Set one hundred years ago (as of this week), on the WWI battlefield of Aisne, a small company of British soldiers stationed on the front line await the German assault that will end their year-long stalemate. Beginning with the arrival of fresh-faced Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) to the ranks of C Company, the film’s week-long respite prior to the Battle of Saint-Quentin provides its dynamic company of soldiers with plenty of time to cook, talk, and prepare for the horrors of war.
Cramped staging, limited sets, small casts, and dialogue-heavy scenes are often hallmarks of a stage-to-screen adaptation – this, the fifth filmed adaptation of this story, is no exception. Here, however, director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade lean into the stage version’s conventions of necessity to great effect. The claustrophobic quarters press into the soldiers as their small gray world threatens to crumble around them, and the lantern light brings out the sweat on their secretly terrified faces. Like many period war films, an ominous ashen pallor coats the screen from beginning to end, and the effect is enhanced by a hypnotic, haunting score from Hildur Gudnadóttir and Natalie Holt. Incessant waves of cello and violin roll back and forth; a force as unstoppable as the ocean, and twice as cruel. This oppressive atmosphere emphasizes that for these soldiers, the dugout is their whole universe. The absence of distraction from the outside places the focus firmly on the characters, each with their own rich psychology.
Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), to begin with, is an officer of merit fighting his own inner battle. He hates the way the war has changed him and turns to drink. He lashes out against those who love him and blames the war again. He must wonder whether the war really destroyed and reshaped him, or merely brought out a demon that was inside of him all along. He must wonder which is worse.
Butterfield brings an eager naivete to the role of new arrival Raleigh, an inadvertent source of friction to Stanhope, and Paul Bettany excels as a calming force, a Gregory Peck like patriarch who speaks almost entirely in reassurances and encouraging advice. Also of note is Toby Jones, quietly remarkable as a loyal army cook who is quick with a joke but seems to have forgotten how to smile.
We see in this ensemble how the war has affected each of them in a different way. Not just the bloodshed, but the drudgery. We know that these characters are going to be dead in six days. The British army is counting on it. The soldiers suspect it. And yet we see the immense amount of preparation and organization needed to set up their little row of sitting ducks. We see the men arrive at the mud-soaked, half-rotted fortification. It stinks of the corpses that the previous occupants used to shore up the walls. Here of all places, they go about the routines that make them feel secure. They eat, they smoke, they watch, they sleep, they shave in the morning, and then they die, almost in an instant, along with every one of their brothers-in-arms. Each individual we came to know is suddenly extinguished, and there is nothing left but an empty trench, a hideous scar on the face of a barren field.
A valuable, contemplative adaptation of a well-worn, but deeply vital, World War I drama, Journey’s End is not shy in impressing upon us that never before in human history had so many souls worked so hard for so long to die so quickly.