A haunting, mem­o­rable WWI tale

The Dominion Post - - Entertainment -

Jour­ney’s End (M, 108mins) Di­rected by Saul Dibb Re­viewed by James Croot ★★★★1⁄2

He might have writ­ten the screen­plays for two of the most-beloved Bri­tish movies of all-time, but Robert Cedric Sher­riff’s ar­guably most-en­dur­ing work was a play he penned much ear­lier in his ca­reer.

Be­fore he took on Good­bye, Mr Chips and The Dam Busters, the for­mer World War I army of­fi­cer re­counted his har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in the trenches in 1928’s Jour­ney’s End.

Star­ring a young Lau­rence Olivier, it be­came a roar­ing suc­cess, and English and Ger­man film adap­ta­tions fol­low­ing soon af­ter. But while the play has been re­vived count­less times to crit­i­cal ac­claim, no-one has at­tempted a di­rect cine­matic adap­ta­tion again (ex­cept for 1976’s Ace’s High, which switched the ac­tion to the air) – un­til now.

In writer Si­mon Reade (2012’s Pri­vate Peace­ful) and direc­tor Saul Dibb’s (The Duchess, Suite Fran­caise) take, the ac­tion takes place dur­ing spring of 1918.

The war is in its fourth year and hos­til­i­ties have reached some­thing of a stale­mate.

Ru­mours are rife among the Bri­tish ranks of an im­mi­nent Ger­man of­fen­sive and each com­pany is hop­ing it won’t be their turn on the front­line when it hap­pens.

The lat­est is C-Com­pany, un­der the in­creas­ingly fraught lead­er­ship of Cap­tain Stan­hope (Adrift’s Sam Claflin).

Trau­ma­tised by ‘‘some rot­ten times’’, Stan­hope has hit the bot­tle – hard. So when young Sec­ond Lieu­tenant Jim Raleigh (Hugo’s Asa But­ter­field) re­quests his first post­ing to be with his old school men­tor, Stan­hope is not as en­thu­si­as­tic at his ar­rival as the young man might have hoped.

More amenable is the com­pany’s ‘‘Un­cle’’, Lieu­tenant Os­borne (Solo’s Paul Bet­tany), a one-cap English rugby player, who takes Raleigh un­der this wing and shows him the ropes of trench life. But as it be­comes in­creas­ingly clear, C-Com­pany’s lat­est stay is un­likely to be sim­i­lar to any of their pre­vi­ous stints.

While the story’s the­atri­cal roots are clearly on dis­play, direc­tor Dibb does a ter­rific job of cre­at­ing a sense of space, place and height­en­ing ten­sion within the mainly claus­tro­pho­bic set­tings.

Thank­fully there are also some light mo­ments – Toby Jones as cook Ma­son serves up de­light­ful fare like yel­low soup, onion tea and ‘‘a sort of cut­let’’ – but they never threaten to veer into full-on Black­ad­der Goes Forth ter­ri­tory.

Like­wise, this isn’t a ki­netic World War I tale, a la Gal­lipoli. In­stead, it’s a slow-burn­ing char­ac­ter drama (pop­u­lated by a ter­rific ensem­ble), that bursts into ac­tion, be­fore de­liv­er­ing some truly mem­o­rable emo­tional fire­works and a haunting coda.

A ter­rific com­pan­ion piece (and Armistice Day week­end dou­ble bill) to Peter Jack­son’s sim­i­larly set doc­u­men­tary They Shall Not Grow Old.

Sam Claflin is part of the su­perb ensem­ble cast in Jour­ney’s End.

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