Journey's End review – horror, humour and humanity in the trenches

This new version of RC Sherriff’s classic play about the futility and slaughter of the first world war is powerful, passionate and superbly acted

For the 100th anniversary of the first world war’s end, here is an unassumingly excellent new film version of RC Sherriff’s classic 1928 stage play, adapted by Simon Reade and directed by Saul Dibb. It is expertly cast and really well acted: forthright, powerful, heartfelt. The dramatic action is opened out, while always conveying the essential, cramped claustrophobia of this tragic ordeal. Cinematographer Laurie Rose’s coolly observant, dynamic camerawork helps drive the dramatic momentum and the sinuous musical score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Natalie Holt creates a growing sense of horror and dread.

Asa Butterfield plays the young Second Lieutenant Raleigh, newly arrived at the front in 1918. In all his moon-faced naivety, he asks to join C company in the trenches, because the commanding officer there is Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who was a few years ahead of Raleigh at school and a family friend. The artless innocence of his beamingly casual attitude, so imminently to be ruined, is made even more ironic by the nepotism.

The trial of mealtimes in the officers’ dug out.
The trial of mealtimes in the officers’ dug out. Photograph: Nick Wall

Raleigh doesn’t use his connections to avoid combat, but to be in thick of it; his uncle is a senior officer who is pained at Raleigh’s crashingly tactless request, but at last gruffly asks him how his father’s crocuses are doing. On hearing bad news on this point, he shrugs and says he’s planting them at the wrong depth. It is a quietly horrible vignette of innocence: an Edenic world where the health of crocuses is something to worry about.

The meeting of Raleigh and Stanhope is a silent cymbal clash of horror. To Raleigh’s dismay, Stanhope is not the boy he knew. The war has made him an aggressive, careworn, self-hating alcoholic, who is horrified to see young Raleigh and realise how he must look in the eyes of someone who once liked and rather hero-worshipped him. Their very juxtaposition is an obscene insertion of the Arcadia of their earlier, innocent civilian life into this cauldron of hell and despair. And what makes it even more painful is that Stanhope has an unofficial understanding with Raleigh’s sister, back at home and poignantly awaiting letters. Stanhope realises – as the younger man does not – how likely it is he will break this young woman’s heart by dying, or by coming home an angry, unloving spectre. Each is a grotesque sort of mirror to the other because Raleigh, perhaps without yet fully realising it, can see in Stanhope what he will become. In the quiet intelligence of their performances, Butterfield and Claflin convey all this.

Paul Bettany is excellent as the sadly smiling Lieutenant Osborne, the pipe-smoking former schoolmaster whose nickname “Uncle” neatly conveys his avuncular wisdom, while underlining the general tragic lack of anything like a parent or anyone who can love these soldiers, most of them nothing more than boys. Stephen Graham is the rough-hewn and capable Second Lieutenant Trotter; Miles Jupp has a telling cameo as the drily cynical Captain Hardy and Toby Jones is the humorous cook, Mason, apologising for having to replace tinned pineapples with tinned apricots, or serving “oniony” tea.

The movie interestingly shows what a trial the officers’ dugout mealtimes are. They are occasions when the strict formality of rank is theoretically relaxed, but, in fact, eating and drinking are a new source of tension. Food and drink is all they have to obsess over: the nearest they have to indulgence, or simply to feel like human beings. Whisky is the drug they all crave, and this luxury is the most fundamental necessity of all.

Their horrible situation of boredom and nerve-shredding tension suddenly becomes even more unspeakable when the order comes through that Osborne and Raleigh are to lead a raiding party, in broad daylight, into enemy lines to capture a German soldier for intelligence purposes. What becomes queasily clear is that the raid has been planned for daytime for no good reason other than getting it completed for the report that will precede the formal dinner. More incredibly, it is to go ahead without any dummy run, or dress rehearsal with some British squaddie acting the part of the German so that this manhandling can be practised. They are just expected to do it. The aftermath of this grisly adventure brings all their despair into yet sharper focus.

The first world war is one of the 20th century’s oldest, grimmest tales of futility and slaughter. Dibb and his excellent cast put new passion into it.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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