Premiering at 2017 festivals before a 2018 UK release, Journey’s End, a screen revival of RC Sherriff’s classic World War One play, could not be better timed. On the centenary of the final years of that hideously destructive conflict, it’s important to be reminded of the human toll it took on the nation’s youth, as well as to look at the dangers of a divided Europe. Even by the standards of war, WW1 was colossally, atrociously stupid mess, and with very strong performances, Saul Dibb’s adaptation gets this across, even if never quite escapes its own staginess.
Taking place over five long days at the business end of the Western Front, Journey’s End focuses in on just a few members of the battalion waiting nervously for a mooted massive German attack. Every one of the leads is terrifically acted, with the more experienced soldiers like Sergeant Trotter (Stephen Graham) and officer Osborne (Paul Bettany) turning in the expected excellent performances, exhausted but surviving for the men in their care. At the younger end of the spectrum is fresh-faced new arrival Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who still thinks the war will be an adventure. It’s a boilerplate loss of innocence role, but Butterfield does a good job, and his baby face makes for a great casting choice.
Holding these men together is Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), the shattered, alcoholic commanding officer who is as terrified of returning to a peaceful world as he is of death in the trenches. Claflin outdoes himself in the role, selling the pure misery and desperation of being forced to carry out suicidal orders with the kind of tactics that proved so horribly outdated for the British troops all through the war. Finally, as the cook, Toby Jones gets perhaps the film’s most tragic moment, as his squat, aged figure, out of his chef’s clothes and into combat gear, lines up alongside teenagers to face a seemingly unstoppable advance.
Down in the trenches, Dibb does great work, tight close-ups and a washed out colour palette complementing a low droning score to strongly convey the cold claustrophobia of the dugout. It’s stark and oppressive, trauma and stress blending with cabin fever for a discomforting mood, occasionally broken by well-earned moments of warmth. Writer Simon Reade’s script is, however, undeniably stagy, and though Journey’s End doesn’t feel as a pointlessly similar to the play as, say, Denzel Washington’s Fences, its attempts to break out from its origins aren’t very successful.
In the most obviously cinematic scene, a frantic raid of a German outpost which a stage show would have had to execute through implication rather than action, the editing gets choppy. A casualty inflicted by this mission should be heartbreaking, but is instead pulled off in a puzzlingly low-key manner that misses the emotional mark. Adapting a play for the screen is never an easy task, having to strike the trick balance of keeping the essence of the original production while not transferring the medium’s limitations, and though Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a recent example of tremendous success, it’s an exception to a slightly underwhelming norm that Journey’s End unfortunately sticks to.
It’s not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination, and when it’s sticking to what made the play so excellent, it’s very effective, making for a more than worthy war film. It’s just a shame that the cinematic nature of war can’t mix more satisfyingly with the heavy dialogue focus and commitment to limited sets inherent in a stage to screen adaptation.