Mark Reviews Movies

Journey's End (2018)


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Saul Dibb

Cast: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister

MPAA Rating: R (for some language and war images)

Running Time: 1:47

Release Date: 3/16/18 (limited); 3/23/18 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 22, 2018

Based on R.C. Sherriff's play (as well as his own novelization of the play, written with Vernon Bartlett), Journey's End provides a harrowing study of officers and soldiers in the British Army, serving in the trenches of Northern France just before the Spring Offensive of World War I. The story revolves around three officers: a man who's too good for the war, a fresh-faced entry-level lieutenant who's looking forward to the excitement of battle, and a company commander whose only solace is to drink himself into a state of only near-consciousness. Everyone knows that an attack is coming soon, but nobody knows when. The silence is unnerving. The sound of explosions in the far distance is only a taste of what's to come.

The film, adapted for the screen by writer Simon Reade and director Saul Dibb, is primarily concerned with the day-to-day grind of waiting. Soldiers line up for their watch and to have their rifles inspected, only to proceed to sit or crouch in the mud beneath a makeshift wall of dirt and metal. The officers spend their time leading the men to wait or in their quarters. Food is sparse and often of questionable quality.

For months, there have been six-day shifts for companies in the trenches—each group waiting it out, hoping that the attack won't come when it's their turn on duty. The company here arrives to relative comfort, only to have it yanked from under them. The supplies, the food, and even the electric lighting in the trenches belong to the previous company. When they leave, all of the minimal comforts go along with them, leaving the officers of the company led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) to drink "yellow soup," eat cutlets out of meat that "looks likes liver," and see by way of candlelight.

Stanhope is the drunk. It's unfair, in a way, to call him an alcoholic, because his vice isn't really a vice and it only has become a way of life under the present circumstances. Before the war, we gather, he was an upright young man who did well in school and courted a young lady, who waits for him back home. He knows that his current state is untenable. He also believes that it's more tenable than living with the constant terror of a German assault, with memory of the corpses of men under his command, and with the capacity to know that his fears and his pain aren't supposed to be part of a good officer's character.

The captain is the most complex of the story's main cast of characters, and he provides, perhaps, the closest thing the story has to a moral center, as unlikely as that may seem. There's nothing heroic about the man, but the point is that there's nothing particularly heroic about this war. It's a lot of waiting, followed by long periods of fighting and slaughter, resulting in dead bodies being used to shore up the trench walls—so that there can be more waiting, more fighting, and more bodies.

On the other end, there's Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who requests to be part of Stanhope's company, despite the warning of Raleigh's uncle (played by Rupert Wickham), a general, that they're going to be facing hell. That, the eager and boyish-faced Raleigh says, is his hope.

As it turns out, Stanhope's betrothed is Raleigh's sister, and the young man's arrival in the trenches brings out a previously unknown level of shame in the captain. Worried about his only lifeline to a normal life finding out what kind of man he has become, Stanhope's behavior becomes more aggressive, more spiteful, and more unpredictable. The target of a lot his actions is Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who tries to get out of the trenches claiming illness and who, after his courage is forced upon him by Stanhope putting a pistol to his temple, starts regaling his fellow officers with stories of the women he has bed. It's difficult to tell which is more offensive to Stanhope: Hibbert's cowardice, which the captain can at least understand, or his boorishness.

The third part of the triumvirate is Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), who was a school teacher before the war and has become so beloved within the company that the other officers call him "Uncle." He comes across as some remnant of an era that this war seems destined to destroy—a gentleman, in the classic sense of the term, who embraces his duty and also knows the futility of it. He would never state that to the younger officers and soldiers, of course, because to do so would only weaken their spirit. Isn't it enough that their lives, in the view of the "gentlemen" of the military brass, are already expendable?

Bettany's performance is the standout among the trio, although Claflin, playing a difficult role with assuredness, and Butterfield, transforming from a bright-eyed kid looking for adventure to a shell-shocked soldier dismayed by reality, are also up to the task. It's Osborne, as well as Bettany's calm and paternal attitude as the character, who provides the closest thing to optimism in this picture of hell on earth. Even while preparing for what is likely to be a suicide mission across no man's land, Osborne counts down the minutes (The sound of a ticking watch becomes a motif of terror and, later, sorrow here), while trying to keep his and Raleigh's minds off of the task at hand with pleasant conversation.

Journey's End is a distressing examination of how the wait for war is enough to destroy these men's spirits. It's only a matter of time before the machinery of war grinds their bodies to fuel its seemingly unstoppable movement.

Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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