Journey’s End, 2018.
Directed by Saul Dibb.
Starring Asa Butterfield, Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp, Theo Barklem-Biggs, Jake Curran, Rupert Wickham, Oliver Dimsdale, Nicholas Agnew, Andy Gathergood, Adam Colborne, Derek Barr, and Toby Jones.
Set in a dugout in Aisne in 1918, it is the story of a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Stanhope, as they await their fate.
Journey’s End certainly isn’t a new story; it’s also a world-renowned play and novel, but there’s one singular striking reason as to why it continues to be retold in new and different exciting ways. No, it’s not just because it’s a popular World War I tale surrounded by entertainment mediums more fascinated by its successor, but specifically in part to the raw authenticity in both the production design and characterizations that juxtapose both young and old caught up in this hell, all of which is superbly encapsulated by Suite Française director Saul Dibb (working from a script by Simon Reade) in this adaptation.
Rarely do audiences get a war feature that focuses on the lived-in experience rather than the brutality and mass death displayed on any given battlefield, but that’s what Journey’s End is concerned with. Whereas most war epics utilize trenches and dugouts to showcase various soldiers blitzing through at full speed weapon in hand to gun down the enemy, here it almost feels like a tour through each and every crevice of the space previously occupied by the French, as if it’s actually one of those quick informational type videos one might watch at a history museum but now smack dab in the middle of a much larger story. The walls on each side have taken a beating, there are mirrors plastered over them to assist with occasional shaving, and there is even some accurately dirty photography by Laurie Rose zoomed in on characters’ feet as they are tracked wading through the mud that now fills them.
Again, this is also a character-driven war story as Raleigh is a strapping young lad played by Asa Butterfield eager to join the fray and meet up with his friend Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). What Raleigh doesn’t understand but will quickly come to learn is that over the years, leading the squad has caused Stanhope to basically suffer a mental breakdown; he is obsessed with letters written by Raleigh that may contain words about him, insisting that he be allowed to read them before they are sent, and that’s not even the half of it. He frequently has hallucinations inside the bunker and is kept awake at night with harrowing dreams of a dark fate, and is only comfortable confiding to any of the above with Paul Bettany’s Osborne, referred to as Uncle.
Much credit deserves to go to Sam Claflin for successfully presenting this downward spiral of mental instability that gradually worsens and worsens as the film goes on, especially after a few critical plot points. Stressing him out even further (alongside those under his command) is the fact that for the six days they are stationed out on the front lines per month, there is a high possibility of a powerful German attack that will likely wipe them out. Naturally, this means that Stanhope isn’t necessarily thrilled to see Raleigh, but they make do with the situation to the best of their abilities.
I won’t dive too much into the details of why Raleigh felt compelled to take up arms alongside Stanhope, but as a rookie he is something like a fish out of water, allowing audiences to soak up a genuine experience of living down in the dugout. There are quite a few basic sequences such as rifle checks, crash courses in how to use the flare gun that signifies either safety or alarm, and downtime sequences inside a makeshift kitchen for the commanders headed up by Toby Jones’ Mason. Essentially, it’s the calm before the storm as the characters interact prior to inevitable doom. At the start, Stanhope seems slightly disturbed, but by the end, he’s gone full-blown mad due to certain events that transpire over the week. The unsettling orchestral score by Natalie Holt adds to the anxiety and paranoia, giving off a queasy vibe.
Also, breaking the film up into days that act as chapters allows the film to maintain its roots as a play. As is the case with many similar adaptations, this means that there are stretches of Journey’s End that can drag or feel a bit slow, but it should remain captivating to those with an interest in World War I or the atmosphere of being staked out in a dugout on the front lines. The only other issue is that Raleigh only serves as a very basic cipher for our connection to the overall narrative, but being fair to Asa Butterfield, the recruit isn’t given much in terms of development aside from amassing rudimentary knowledge of his environment. Stanhope is easily more fascinating, and Claflin turns in a fine performance that escalates in its madness. When the mortars are finally fired, his frustration, pain, and insanity are palpable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com