Set in the middle of the First World War, the enduring play by RC Sherriff gets a cinematic update that plays to the media's strength of complex character driven story, but fails to match the scale film can offer. Originally written in 1928 the play has had lasting significance as both a work of fiction and preservation of the past. Journey's End will be released to coincide with the centenary of the Spring offensive in 1918, depicting the grim reality of the war which at the time was hidden from the British public.
The film stars Sam Claflin as the tortured Captain Stanhope, whose time in the trenches is visibly wearing him thin. It's a performance within a performance, as he tries to exude an air of confidence and strength while suffering from PTSD (shell-shock as it was known then). It's quite a contrast to modern ideas of masculinity where the perception of men pushing down emotions was encouraged, leading Stanhope to alcoholism and bursts of rage when alone. He worries about his troops, but also about his reputation at home if he's considered a coward or ‘weak'.
Claflin plays the lead, but it is an ensemble film. We're first introduced to wide-eyed and naïve Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who volunteers for the front to join his good friend Captain Stanhope, unaware of his change in personality. At the Front Raleigh meets Osborne (Paul Bettany) – Stanhope's second-in-command, but more importantly his confidant. Paul Bettany exudes warmth and respect as Osborne. In one scene he happily reflects on his time as a headmaster. Raleigh and Osborne are the more sympathetic characters, filled with naivety and optimism respectively, they are easier to identify with even if they aren't the focus. The rest of the cast is incredible too, conveying the grim reality of the trenches without being overdramatic.
The camera draws you into the intensity of the trenches, like a screw slowly being driven tighter and tighter. This plays to the greatest strength of the play which are the characters. Unfortunately, the scale the cinema provides isn't used, especially when compared to last year's Dunkirk (and to a certain extent Wonder Woman). By not taking full advantage of the grandeur and spectacle that the big screen can provide will leave you wanting, even when the script does allow us to peek above the parapet it is bitterly short.
It's a tense and suffocating film set deep in the trenches, with incredibly memorable characters. This is where the film triumphs over others, with performances that are simply sublime. Falling down on scale, it is still a pleasure to watch.
Journey's End released on the 2nd February 2018.
Words by Sunny Ramgolam @SunnyRamgolam