Over three days of fighting in March of 1918, British soldiers stuck in the WWI trenches of northern France and their commanding officers quartered below await a German attack. Raleigh (Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield), an inexperienced 19-year-old officer, had actually requested to join C Company, led his much-beloved former school housemaster and prospective brother-in-law Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). The latter tries to hide his rattling insecurities and mask his depression in booze and the counsel of his second in command, Osborne (Paul Bettany). Before the war, the lieutenant was teacher and family man with a knack for holding things together, or trying to, at least. But the brass know this will result in near-total casualties. It’s just a matter of when the bombs are going to start falling.
Director Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Bullet Boy) makes no effort to update R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 theatrical firestarter to suit modern trends. The dialogue, formal and courteous via a screenplay by writer/producer Simon Reade, is free of profanity, lacking the grenades of f-bombs so typical of the genre. The usual male bravado is replaced by a crushing vulnerability shared by tender comrades – these men have been in the war for years and hold few hopes in its final months of emerging alive. The vise-like tension grows out of the waiting, punctuated by bursts of action that achieve an explosive impact enhanced by their brevity. The play stayed mostly with the officers. But the film, drawing more on the later novel by Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett, opens up the action and expands to let us see every man facing his own individual fears. Toby Jones adds welcome humor as the company cook. Stephen Graham and Tom Sturridge make indelible impressions as soldiers pushed to the breaking point.
But Journey’s End brings out the very best in its trio of leads. Butterfield is heartbreaking as the blank page on which this tragedy is written, while Bettany brings much needed warmth to the bitter chill of the frontline trenches. But the film belongs to Claflin. Best known as prettyboy decoration in such hits as The Hunger Games, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Me Before You, the actor is a revelation here, catching every nuance as disillusion eats away at Stanhope’s once profound humanity.
This World War I story has been filmed several times, most notably by James Whale (Frankenstein) in 1930. But Dibb’s version is the finest to date, accentuated by the haunting music of Icelandic cellist Hildur Guónadóttir. Only Stanley Kubrick’s 1957’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, which also tackled life in the trenches of The Great War, can top it for ferocity and feeling. Journey’s End is a bleak, sobering experience that puts audiences through a wringer. It’s also an emotional powerhouse you will not forget.