R.C. Sherriff’s classic World War I play Journey’s End has been a staple of British theatre since he wrote it almost 90 years ago. It’s been revived repeatedly and with good reason: this is a cracking, urgent story about a British army infantry company in the trenches in France near the end of the war, fearfully awaiting a German attack they know is coming; the suspense of this waiting feels unbearable.
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In the theatre, the story unravels in the officers’ dugout over a four-day period, with the trenches offstage. But this new film, brilliantly orchestrated by British director Saul Dibb, also takes us into the trenches, and emphasises the cramped nature of the dugout; in both areas, the sense of foreboding hangs heavy.
Dibb moves the action in right next to the faces of these tense characters awaiting their fate with fear in their eyes; the camera itself comes to feel like the viewpoint of an unseen soldier, also sharing this nerve-shredding experience.
Thus cinema does what the theatre alone cannot: it makes the dreadful ordeal these men are undergoing feel palpable. (A word of praise here for cinematographer Laurie Rose, who placed himself and his camera firmly in the epicentre of the action.) And Dibb cuts sharply between characters, and between the trenches and the officers’ dugout; it serves to ramp up the tension even further.
Still, this film is about more than the masterful creation of a tense atmosphere; it also features memorable acting from an inspired British troupe. Chief among these is Sam Claflin as Stanhope, the dutiful, charismatic company commander who is suffering from stress and trauma in this war zone, and has taken to drinking heavily. This past year has been a remarkable one for Claflin. He also excelled as the sardonic, charming screenwriter Buckley, Gemma Arterton’s love interest in Their Finest; but as Stanhope he outdoes himself.
He isn’t alone. Asa Butterfield is touching as Raleigh, a newly arrived young soldier getting his first taste of warfare; he knew the older Stanhope from school and hero-worshipped him. Paul Bettany is terrific as Stanhope’s number two, the gentle, avuncular Lieutenant Osborne, while veteran actors Toby Jones (as the company cook) and Stephen Graham are both outstanding as men from the lower ranks.
In short, Dibb and his cast and crew have done great honour to Sherriff’s play, expanding its horizons even while moving some of its action into cramped spaces. While that might sound contradictory, it is anything but. Their Journey’s End is a remarkable piece of film-making; early days yet, but it would be no surprise to find ourselves looking back on it as among 2018’s very best.