Director: Saul Dibb
Cast: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Robert Glenister, Toby Jones, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge
Plot: Captain Stanhope (Claflin) leads a regiment of men to guard a doomed trench in No Man’s Land, when a face from his past appears.
There are a lot of plays based on World War I. Let’s be honest, the topic is ripe for playwrights to dive into historical and cultural debates. It was the foolhardy optimism that the soldiers had before the nightmare began, the manipulation of the media and the cold-hearted calculative manner of the officers. Out of all of the plays, Journey’s End is probably the best. Set in a trench and centred around a small cast, days away from their probable defeat, it is a bleak look at the morality of men.
We haven’t had a decent cinematic outing of this play in quite some time. In fact, as Journey’s End rolled into cinemas, it felt surprising that it had been done sooner. The casting team must have had a good job, filling these iconic roles with actors that could hammer the job home. Captain Stanhope’s portrayal is integral to the success of the piece. A good-hearted captain, who has, sadly, seen too many horrors to hold onto his sanity. In some moments, he is a level-headed captain, acting as the father figure to his men, guilty that he is likely leading them to their deaths. To escape the horrendous memories and that crippling guilt, Stanhope is often found drowning his sorrows with whisky, spending most of the play drunk. It is here where Stanhope’s other side comes out, the angry lunatic who finds less reasons to keep his resentment for his predicament bottled up. The challenge for the actor in the role is finding both the humanity and the monstrous side to the character. We must both fear him and pity him. We must both connect with his character, yet leave the play feeling that we perhaps didn’t understand the man at all. Sam Claflin has been one of the better actors in the Young Adult genre, often giving the audience the impression that he is twice as good as the actual film he is trapped in. His understanding of characterisation has often helped him pull supporting characters into the limelight. He could be the best young male in The Hunger Games series and some may argue he stopped Me Before You from being a total waste of time. While he is arguably too young to play Stanhope (although some may see this as a purposeful move by director Saul Dibb), it does feel like the young actor is finally getting a script that is worth his time. Gone are the fighting through a clunky script aimed at teenagers, and here we get a gripping text that any actor with his salt would die for. By his side are a fine supporting cast. The side characters in the trench are filled with the cream of the crop of British acting, so finely hand-picked that they can be dropped onto screen and instantly feel at home in the movie. Toby Jones, Stephen Graham… what more can you ask for? Rounding up the cast are Asa Butterfield as the young, upbeat Raleigh and Paul Bettany as the old faithful officer, Osborne. As far as casting goes, Saul Dibb has assembled a wonderful team.
But strangely, it feels like that is as far as this adaptation of Journey’s End has gone. There may not have been too many film version of the text, but there have been hundreds of plays. It is a stock text to study in the education system, most literature students discussing the First World War through this play. Therefore, when we get an A-List cast onto the big screen to give us their own take on the script, you expect something more than a straight re-telling. However, to a point, that is all we get with Dibb’s production. Youthful Raleigh gets himself signed up to Stanhope’s regiment, the pair of them old friends. The story plays out just as you would expect, with Raleigh finding his old friend changed by the war and the regiment trying to gloss over the fact that they are surely days from death. Of course, I don’t expect the narrative to change too much; the theatre fans would never allow it. But, other than some added scenes where Stanhope talks with his superiors, there hasn’t been anything new brought to the table. You want the actors to find some new ground with the parts, imagining Stanhope in a new and exciting way. Raleigh, in particular, is dying for some new lease of life. Sadly, Saul Dibb seems content on simply bringing this story to film and sharing it with a new medium. The story plays out, interesting enough and appropriately pulling at the heartstrings when the story demands it, but it is nothing we haven’t seen before. It isn’t bad, by any means, but it is a little disappointing to see such a brilliant chance gone to waste.
Thankfully, even a second-rate telling of Journey’s End is a bloody good watch. Saul Dibb might direct it routinely, but the routine is well-oiled. The central performances are all strong. Claflin is as good as you would expect as the stubborn Stanhope, a must-see for any fan of the actor that wants to see him handle something with more meat than usual. Paul Bettany is the show-stealer, as the softer part of Osborne. He anchors the script, but refuses to let the part wander into a pleasant background performance, as the writing often threatens to do. It is the anger and sadness hiding behind the cheery tones, as we see Osborne, a man who has probably seen as much violence as Stanhope has, refuse to fall into the same state of despair. But overall, it is the entire cast as a team that gives the film its power. The gentle camaraderie as the men dance around the fact that planning for any future is likely to be futile. False promises are made that no one believes, yet everyone clings to that hope regardless. The commanding officers are cruelly heartless, giving Journey’s End this state of helplessness that any decent World War I film thrives off of. And Saul Dibb keeps the ending of the play fairly open-ended. Did the men survive? Or are they so far gone, their fates, ultimately, do not matter?
Final Verdict: Dibb’s Journey’s End strikes the audience as a film that could have been a little more dimensional, yet remains a solid watch regardless.