Review: Journey's End is powerful depiction of horror and humanity in the trenches
PUBLISHED: 15:34 01 February 2018 | UPDATED: 15:34 01 February 2018
© Steffan Hill 2016
Released to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, Saul Dibb's elegiac screen adaptation expands RC Sherriff's moving 1928 stage play about life on the front line without sacrificing the psychological intensity.
Journey’s End (12A)
Lest we forget, the 1814-18 conflict remains the go-to conflict for dramatists seeking the anti-war drama to end all anti-war drama.
R.C. Sheriff’s 1928 play already has an essential place in British screen history: it was a Manchester production of it that Paul McGann was leaving for at the end of Withnail And I.
Sheriff’s piece became such a repertory season standard and its popularity is down to it having effectively set the template for all the First World War dramas to come: the aloof generals casually sending troops off to die; the wide-eyed boy from a good home eager to join in the King and Country glory; the young posho officers cracking under the pressure; the stout working class tommies; and the claustrophobic tension of them clambering together in poorly maintained trenches.
Screenwriter Simon Reade ventures beyond the claustrophobic confines of an officer’s dugout in the days leading up to the Spring Offensive, the setting for Sherriff’s anthem to doomed youth.
His lean script trudges along muddy, collapsing trenches and sprints into No Man’s Land, where the loss of young lives is brought home in a disorienting barrage of sound and fury: rat-a-tat gunfire, exploding shells and blood-curdling screams heralding a concerted push by the Germans.
Anguished silences between soldiers, resigned to the grim inevitability of a final stand, cast a pall over stage versions and stoke dramatic tension.
New characters have been added to the stage play’s rank and file but the emotional fulcrum remains an inexperienced officer, Raleigh, played by 20-year-old Asa Butterfield.
He successfully petitions a high-ranking relative to transfer him to the company commanded by old school friend Captain Stanhope (Norfolk’s own Sam Claflin), who made a big impression on Raleigh’s sister.
Fizzling with youthful optimism and innocence, Raleigh arrives at his new post on March 18, 1918, oblivious to the impending German onslaught.
He is greeted by Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), who has served alongside Stanhope for some time and witnessed his superior’s whisky-soaked rages fuelled by fear and self-loathing.
Norfolk star Sam Claflin on why his new Great War film Journey’s End is a poignant reminder
Digging this up for a new group of actors to run through to mark the centenary of the end of hostilities may seem like a tired and uninspired idea but it quickly gets you in its grip.
The highest praise I can give Saul Dibb’s film is that it really doesn’t look like the film of a play at all; more like the work of an energetic and resourceful young filmmaker trying to make a powerful film that transcends the limitations of budget and locations. It’s a first-rate production with uniformly excellent acting. They’ve found fresh legs in the old warhorse.