With 2018 marking the centenary of the end of World War I, it’s fitting that something as affecting as Journey’s End gets its release this year.
Adapted from the play of the same name and directed by Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Suite Francaise), Journey’s End focuses on the lives of six soldiers surviving in the trenches, and the days leading up to the start of the Spring Offensive. Asa Butterfield stars as Raleigh, a young, naive new recruit, who volunteers himself to join the men in Aisne as he’s heard a school friend is captaining the troops and he wants to reconnect after years apart.
However, on arrival he finds a very different man to the one he remembers. Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) has been deeply affected by what he’s seen and is quick to lose his temper, leaving Raleigh and his comrades constantly on edge. Osborne (Paul Bettany) and Trotter (Stephen Graham) try everything to lighten the mood, Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) drinks away his demons, and Mason (Toby Jones) attempts to keep everyone fed and full on what little rations they’re sent. As the days pass and the countdown to going ‘over the top’ begins, the men are antsy, anxious, and feeling fragile, trying to make meaningful connections with each other whilst awaiting their fate.
It’s not long from the opening titles before we’re thrown into the mud with the troops; the authenticity of Journey’s End‘s mise-en-scène is, at times, overwhelming. The bland, repetitive colour palette of brown and khaki green; the constant smoke from the battle field; the cramped, claustrophobic trenches, with their dugout ‘bedrooms’ and dining areas. Nothing could ever compare to the real, lived experience of the men who fought throughout the War, and wars following, but Dibb and his team really do pay tribute to their stories.
Realistic scenery is nothing without realistic, believable acting, and the cast throw everything into their roles. Graham’s Trotter, the cheeky, cheerful Northern lad, is a constant source of smiles and laughter, but fully aware of why he’s living in a bunker and what the end goal has to be. His moments of sombre silence are a loud, striking contrast to his joking. Bettany’s Osborne, a quiet man, happy to be left alone, becomes a sort of mentor to Raleigh. Their moments together discussing their home lives, sharing intimate details, are some of the most touching in the film.
The standout performance is Claflin’s. Best known for his roles in the Hunger Games series and chiclit adaptation Me Before You, Claflin shape shifts into Stanhope, an angry, bitter man, responsible for keeping the men around him alive, a responsibility nobody would wish unto themselves. Close-ups on his face show a taut jawline, a stiff upper lip; inner turmoil radiates from him. Stanhope’s emotional revelation is a heartbreaking climax, giving the audience the performance of Claflin’s career. An outstanding achievement.
Aside from minor issues with pace (the day-by-day chronology feels quite slow at times, especially in the middle third), Journey’s End is a powerful drama, a touching tribute to the men who fought for and sacrificed so much.