We are showing this film close to the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War, in remembrance of those who died. It is a salutary experience to visit any village in the country, including Wivenhoe, and see how many died in a senseless war. We no longer see those who were maimed by it, walking the streets and there is no memorial to them, but there were just as many, if not more.
Set in the trenches near St-Quentin, Aisne in 1918, towards the end of the war, Journey’s End gives a glimpse into the experiences of the officers of a British Army Infantry company. The story plays out in the officers’ dugout over four days from 18 March 1918 to 21 March 1918, the last few days before Operation Michael. R C Sherriff, who wrote the play on which the film is based, considered calling it Suspense or Waiting but eventually found a title in the closing line of a chapter of an unidentified book, ‘It was late in the evening when we came at last to our journey’s end’. The company is led by the war-weary Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). With a German offensive imminently approaching, the officers (Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Tom Sturridge) and their cook (Toby Jones) use food and the memories of their lives before the war to distract themselves, while Stanhope soaks his fear in whisky, unable to deal with the dread of the inevitable. A young officer, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), arrives fresh out of training and abuzz with the excitement of his first real posting – not least because he is to serve under Stanhope, his former school house monitor and the object of his sister’s affections. Each man is trapped, the days ticking by, the tension rising and the attack drawing ever closer…
The cast relish playing against the clichés: Claflin has never been better than here, throwing the officer-class stiff upper lip out the window and playing Stanhope as a spittle-flecked alcoholic rage case (just not in front of the men). A character who in a more sentimental take on the period would deliver a climactic speech admonishing an unthinking colonel, here grimly — even eagerly — waits for the war that’s killed his spirit to finish the job on his body. Claflin is smart counter-casting: normally a sunny, grinning presence, he dials down the light in his eyes and turns in haunting work. It’s a shame awards aren’t given out for wordless acting: there’s a scene where he sends men to their deaths where he’s playing about 15 emotions at once.
Paul Bettany does equally strong, if more subtle, work as Lieutenant Osborne, Stanhope’s number two. Incarnating British decency under siege, he mothers Stanhope — at one point tenderly tucking him into bed to sleep off another binge — while clearly barely keeping himself together. As he prepares to mount an unnecessary raid on the enemy trenches, he mordantly observes, ‘At least the weather’s held’, which would be an early candidate for 2018’s most heartbreaking line if it weren’t for another scene where a character gently prepares another for the fact he may not come back to their dugout alive while never actually saying it straight. This may be sledgehammer stuff — the character in question all but magnetises himself to better attract bullets — but it’s effective as hell.
The technical delivery is skilful if at the lower end of the budget scale, but then again, showing exhilarating combat isn’t the point. Claflin, Bettany et al are playing real people trapped in a situation Samuel Beckett would find hopeless. It actually happened, and real people were responsible for putting them there, and this story, written when there were still people alive at whom to direct anger, carries considerable power.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall