This is an irreproachably solid adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play about the physical and psychological realities of life in the World War I trenches.
It is very well-acted by an excellent cast and while it never manages to pull away from its theatrical roots, it’s still a powerful drama. Powerfully-timed, too. Give or take a month or so, it arrives in cinemas 100 years after the week in which it is set, just before the Germans launched their so-called Spring Offensive of 1918.
Sam Claflin plays Captain Stanhope, whose dash and charisma have been sucked away by the horrors of war. He is still a brave, committed soldier, but increasingly reliant on the contents of a whisky bottle, and on the wise support of his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany).
Stanhope has a sweetheart at home, whose younger brother, Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), arrives to join his company. Stanhope is horrified; not least because he thinks Raleigh will write to his sister and tell her what her beau has become.
With these heady emotions swirling, the company is ordered by an absent brigadier to make a suicidal charge at the Germans, who are only ‘the width of a rugby field’ away.
Journey’s End is partly an exploration of the notion that the British went into battle as lions led by donkeys — in Stanhope’s case, a particularly wounded lion. The scene in which he is effectively commanded to sacrifice his men reminded me strongly of the classic Beyond The Fringe sketch in which Peter Cook’s RAF officer orders Perkins (Jonathan Miller) to lay down his life, as a ‘futile gesture’ to raise the tone of the war.
It’s not entirely irreverent to watch Journey’s End and think of a comedy sketch. Director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade make the most of Sheriff’s playful dialogue about food, with Toby Jones in fine, lugubrious form as Private Mason, the reluctant, rather Baldrick-like company cook. Tom Sturridge plays the company coward, compounding his reputation as the go-to actor for weaselly soldiers.
All the acting is top-notch (Bettany in particular stands out, as the heartbreakingly decent Osborne). And while it’s a stretch to believe that only three years separate the world-weary Stanhope and Raleigh, who looks about 14, maybe that’s the point. Wars do that to people, then as now.
Review by Brian Viner, Daily Mail