Based on the play by RC Sherriff, which will be familiar to many British school students, this film has just opened to a limited release in the US and I was lucky enough to find a showing of it. As someone who has taught WWI literature, I was keen to see what a new film adaptation of this beloved play would be like. When I heard about the cast; my interest was piqued further. Even though I am very much the target audience for such a film, it still managed to exceed my expectations.
Sam Claflin stars as Captain Stanhope, who is dealing with the trauma of war by drinking through it. The ‘peace’ he has managed to find for himself in doing this is disrupted when an old school friend, the extremely green and naive Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) arrives and specifically requests to be assigned to Stanhope’s unit. Despite appearing to be about 15, Raleigh is an officer, so is bunked in extremely close quarters with the older, more experienced Osborne (Paul Bettany), Trotter (Stephen Graham) and Hibbert (Tom Sturridge). There, they are waited on by Mason (Toby Jones), who does what he can to turn the meagre rations into fine feasts for the officers. Almost the entire film takes place in this tiny officer’s bunk and the trench on the frontlines in 1918, giving the film a claustrophobic quality. The tedium combined with unbearable tension is skilfully conveyed by the production design and the acting, which is phenomenal.
Sam Claflin was in two of my favourite films of last year – ‘Their Finest’ (his second collaboration with director Lone Scherfig after the excellent ‘Riot Club’) and ‘My Cousin Rachel’ and he is quickly becoming an actor who can be relied upon to give interesting and layered performances. Asa Butterfield has been a child/teen actor around for some time now; in the underrated ‘Hugo’ (one of my favourite Scorcese films) and in the unfairly overlooked ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ (Burton’s 2016 film). He is perfectly cast here as Raleigh, looking like he’s just been plucked from his boarding school dorm and dropped into the hell of war; completely unprepared for what he’s about to face. Having only really seen Bettany in red make-up and a tight-fitting silver suit for the last few years (as Vision in the MCU), it is refreshing to see him getting to stretch his acting muscles again. He is sublime here, in what could be a boring, ‘good guy’ role. Osborne is the only thing keeping Stanhope from spiralling off the rails completely – his stillness centres and his steadiness grounds Stanhope, tethering him to the reality of leading his men. Stephen Graham is absolutely the best (along with Vicky McClure and Joe Gilgun) that British acting has to offer the world at the moment. Some highlights from the prolific actor are ‘Taboo’, ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and the ‘This is England’ film and TV series and he is insanely good in each one. Trotter is the only working class man in the officer’s bunk and his cheery demeanour is in stark contrast to Hibbert, who is suffering from shell-shock and on the verge of deserting.
Raleigh’s arrival on the frontlines is particularly worrying for Stanhope because his ‘sweetheart’ is Raleigh’s older sister Margaret. He is paranoid that she will get wind of what war has done to him and that he is a shell of his former self. It is slightly laughable that Claflin is supposed to be 3 years older than Butterfield (when the age-gap is in fact nearly 10 years). However, the physical contrast between the two works well to amplify the gulf between them; Raleigh is fresh-faced and Stanhope is broken. The film does an incredible job of portraying the everyday reality of war (admittedly mainly from the officers’ perspective). Their lives revolve around food, tea (even if it’s a bit oniony), cigarettes (or Osborne’s beloved pipe) and for Stanhope: whiskey. They spend their days waiting for their orders – when will they have to go on a raid, or will this finally be the day that the Germans attack? Despite his rank, Captain Stanhope has no control over the fate that will befall his men, he can only try to prepare them as best he can. As with any artwork about the First World War, futility is always going to be a main theme; something keenly felt by Hibbert. What is the point in doing anything when you are all going to die anyway and your death will have served no purpose? It is impossible not to experience anything to do with WWI and not come away feeling sick and angry about it. It goes without saying that the ending of ‘Journey’s End’ is devastating. It could end no other way.
I hope that as many people as possible in the US seek this film out on its limited release (I believe that is has pretty much left UK cinemas now). There is no doubt in mind that this film will be used widely in history and English lessons in the UK and they are fortunate to have such a good film as an educational tool. I was expecting to be interested in this movie, but not to be blown away on the level that I was. This is the film of the year so far for me and I urge you to find a way to watch it.
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Starring: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones