Film Review: Journey's End

Beautifully realized, hard-hitting yet intimate anti-war tale of a British military company embedded on the front lines in the final deadly months of WWI is exemplary art-house fare.
Specialty Releases

Wartime fighting ain’t pretty. Nor is awaiting the call to mobilize, signaling that the in-the-bunker Journey’s End is not a conventionally “feel-good” film. But quality seekers will certainly leave satisfied, thanks largely to magnificent performances from a gaggle of top Brit dependables, including Sam Claflin (The Hunger Games), Asa Butterfield (Hugo), Paul Betanny, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge and Stephen Graham, and an exquisite production miraculously delivered even in the story’s claustrophobic confines. It should be noted that the film is also gifted with a subtle, suspense-heightening score that never gets in the way.

Director Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Suite Française), with help from screenwriter Simon Reade, delivers a polished and moving work. The film’s structure and handful of varied relatable characters (based on R.C. Sherriff’s acclaimed 1928 play) may be a familiar scheme, but it works. Furthering the realism the film is intent on delivering is Laurie Rose’s canny camera placement: handheld or rigged (Steadicam) approaches that put viewers beside the soldiers in the cramped bunkers and trenches. Unlike the war (battle, really) that Journey’s End depicts, the film is a victory for both sides—filmmakers and upscale viewers.

The time is spring 1918, after nearly four years of battle and just before the horrific, German-initiated “Spring Offensive” that saw the loss of hundreds of millions of lives. The film focuses on a group of C-company British officers housed in quarters below the muddy bunkers where the soldiers wait. The whole company is on a duty of dread, a kind of wartime roulette when all companies must serve six days out of the month on the front lines with no one knowing when they’ll be called to battle. In C-company’s case, it’s rather like lambs lined up, a “darkest hour” indeed as they learn there’s no backup for them.

As the grim countdown drags, we meet a cross-section of officers and soldiers. Foremost are Captain Stanhope (Claflin), the battle-scarred, deeply troubled upper-class leader gone south because he’s experiencing a premature stress disorder and has sunk into alcoholism; young, starry-eyed innocent Raleigh (Butterfield), just out of training and eager to serve, especially under his former schoolhouse monitor Stanhope, who is also the sweetheart of Raleigh’s older sister; Officer Osborne (Bettany), a composed, pipe-smoking, calming figure who is like ballast to those anxious souls around him; Hibbert (Sturridge), a panicky sort paralyzed by what just might lie ahead; the officers’ cook Mason (Jones), a cynical bloke with edge who serves dishes he can’t quite describe that whet no appetites; and Trotter (Graham), a cheery soldier whose nature could be a cover-up for dread smoldering within.

During the six days of watch-and-wait, much is revealed about these captives of horrible circumstance, all betraying varying degrees of unease and terror. Most importantly, the men are all too human. Stanhope has become so paranoid that Raleigh’s letter home to his sister will betray his pathetic condition, he orders it destroyed. And there’s a pop-up raid that brings tragedy and causes deeply troubled Hibbert to demand that Stanhope have him hospitalized. A nasty showdown follows, with each revealing dark secrets. Tensions mount until that day when, after a captured German shares the date of the imminent enemy offense, orders come for the company to arm for battle and gather in the warren of dark, filthy trenches for the attack.

Regarding what follows, let’s just say that with the film’s final, ironic coda and its wealth of talent displayed on both sides of the cameras, Journey’s End will reward a journey to see it in theatres, even if it will more likely thrive from lifelines beyond the big screen.

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