The First World War might be overshadowed in the contemporary mind by its more famous sequel, but in some ways it is of greater historical importance. It destroyed once and for all the possibility of a heroic conception of war, which simply could not be reconciled with the brutal reality of trenches, chemical weapons and machine guns.
This senselessness is precisely what Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End sets out to portray, and it does a mighty fine job of it. Adapted from J. C. Sheriff’s classic 1928 anti-war play of the same name, it depicts in painstaking detail the daily routines, class divides and mental states of the British soldiers stationed on the Western Front. Led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a charming but broken man who is painfully aware of the absurdity of his mission, and his stoic, introspective number two Osborne (Paul Bettany), the battalion awaits almost certain annihilation from an impending German assault.
Narrative thrust is provided by the arrival of Stanhope’s fresh-faced childhood friend Raleigh (played by a slightly too boyish Asa Butterfield) who in his doomed earnestness has come to experience what he believes to be the dashing thrill of battle. He is brought mercilessly down to earth after grasping what Stanhope has been reduced to – a cynical alcoholic struggling to keep himself together – and experiencing first-hand the horrific nature of trench warfare. Journey’s End deserves commendation for its refusal to descend into melodrama; this is not nostalgic period drama, but an unvarnished depiction of organised murder.
In other words, this is very pure cinema; while events do take place, it is the raw experience – sensory, auditory and psychological – of war that takes precedence. One feels it all with painful conviction, from the dirt trapped under fingernails and mud squelching under exhausted feet, to the ghostly candlelight suppers that hark back to more primitive times. The film’s desaturated palette embodies the hopelessness and emptiness of war.
The claustrophobia of the trench environment is vividly conveyed not only by the physical surroundings themselves, but by Dibb’s heavy use of shallow focus close-ups that isolate characters while simultaneously bringing their emotions into acute relief. Performances are strong across the board, with Paul Bettany’s Osborne standing out in particular for his refusal to succumb to nihilism despite fully grasping the futility of his situation.
Despite paying no attention to events beyond the trenches, Journey’s End is nonetheless deeply political in its depiction of the class tensions that characterised the war. Grey-haired patrician generals order slightly younger, but no less posh captains to their deaths, while lowly officers – identifiable by their cockney and northern accents – sit outside in the rain, oblivious to the conversations determining their lives. The lone Liverpudlian (Stephen Graham) who has made it to captain rank is mocked by the others for his ignorance of fine art. The generals secure themselves fresh fish while leaving the rest to scrap over tinned apricots. Even in war, all men are not equal.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka