A haunting, memorable WWI tale
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.
This is a slow-burning character drama that bursts into action, before delivering some truly memorable emotional fireworks and a haunting coda.
Sam Claflin is part of the superb ensemble cast in Journey’s End.