Set in the trenches in Aisne in 1918, a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), await their fate. The film follows a six-day rotation of a new group of troops sent to the front-line trenches of France. Among them is a volunteer, the young and somewhat naive Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who plans to reunite with his old friend Stanhope, however once he arrives he soon finds that he is no longer the man he once knew. Downtrodden by the effects of war and the pain of responsibility for his men, Captain Stanhope is a changed man. With a volatile fiery temper making him unpredictable, his only solace is found in a bottle of whiskey.
Morale is sustained throughout the troops by the high-spirited Trotter (Stephen Graham), a grafter whose humour has not been lost despite the surroundings; and Osbourne (Paul Bettany) whose quiet persona, has become a mentoring guidance to those around him. With an imminent attack expected from the enemy line, the troops must hold their ground in the knowledge that not everyone will be going home.
Journey’s End in an original play written by R. C. Sherriff which has been brilliantly adapted for the screen by director Saub Dibb. Bringing together an incredible British cast to create a moving tribute which marks the Centenary of the end of the First World War.
The visual style of the film really takes you into the trenches and gives you a sense of just how bad the conditions were. Damp, claustrophobic and in constant fear of attack, it must have looked like hell; although the first thing which they apologise for as soldiers entered was the smell. Partly built from the filth and squalor left by the previous French occupants following their desertion, mixed with the stagnant smell from the rotting corpses of the dead which were used to reinforce the walls.
The film has some memorable shots throughout which include a brilliantly executed surprise attack on the Germans, in a mission to bring back a prisoner for intelligence gathering. The camera integrates you into the action, which is reminiscent of the landing scenes in Saving Private Ryan (1998). But even though the action is impressive, it is the more tranquil and moving moment leading up to the attack which really stands out for me. As officers Raleigh and Osbourne make their way towards the front line of the trench to lead the assault, the camera follows them just above ground level. Following the boots of the officers as they walk through the damp, muddy trenches. Although you can’t see the faces you can hear the soldiers acknowledging them with a sorrowed good luck. It is a simple scene, but continues to build-up the anticipation of the moment. It is a job which no one wants to take because they are more than aware that not everyone is coming back alive.
Although the film manages to the create the bleak intensity of the trenches, it is the performances that make the film so impressive. Claflin leads the cast as Stanhope, a man on the edge, due to the harsh realities of war and the mounting pressure of overseeing the men under his command. It is an intense performance giving his character a brave pretence, as he tries to both mask and forget his fears in the copious amounts of whiskey he consumes. Torn emotionally between the welfare of his men and the tactical commands from his superiors, you can really feel for the emotional struggles of his character.
The camaraderie of the men is summed up in a brilliant performance by Graham as Trotter. A man who you feel has earned his position through his actions, rather than the privilege of a private education. His cheeky quick-witted persona is matched by cook Mason (Toby Jones) who adds a natural humour without losing the ongoing tension. His unique take on the limited menu works perfectly with his light-hearted tone when serving the officers, although his façade suddenly drops in the kitchen, as he allows himself the dark realisation that he is still at war.
The most impressive performance however comes from Bettany as Osbourne or Uncle as he is referred to in the officers’ quarters. His moving performance is well suited to the title as his level-headed authority and compassionate manner brings composure to the team. There is an honest amiability to Osbourne who stands as the voice of reason which holds the group together. His own sanity sustained by his memories and thoughts of going back to his family.
Journey’s End contains most of the action within the trenches, where director Dibb really allows the characters to evolve. Beautifully shot with heartfelt performances from the cast, it is a powerful and moving drama, which serves as a fitting tribute to so many that lost their lives.