TIFF Review: Journey's End

Journey’s End
(UK, 107 min.)
Dir. Saul Dibb, Writ. Simon Reade
Starring: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge
Courtesy of TIFF
Director Saul Dibb plunks moviegoers deep down in the trenches with Journey’s End. This tense and unsentimental portrait sees the Great War from its infamous bowels. It’s interesting to get this perceptively limited perspective on war hot on the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which envisions the evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II through a triple pronged puzzle of land, air, and sea. Trudging through the muck with young and overeager Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, The Space Between Us), however, gives a tangible shivering realization of a universal truth of battle: war is hell.

Raleigh wades through the trenches at his new first post in Mont Saint-Quentin, France, where a troupe of doomed British soldiers holds the fort for an ominously anticipated German assault. The end of the war approaches in Journey’s End’s 1918 setting and the film introduces us a group of soldiers whose nerves are shot and whose spirits are frayed after months and years of dirt, cold, and battle. These men are basically waiting to die and they know it, no matter how nice of a face they put on for the green teen with premature stripes who has just joined their team.

Bearing the worst of the shell shock is the infantry’s Captain, Stanhope (Sam Claflin, MyCousin Rachel), an elder boy from Raleigh’s school whom the eager Second Lieutenant admires. Raleigh describes Stanhope as “the best company commander we’ve got” in letters home despite evidence to the contrary, like the Captain’s whiskey-soaked jitters and skittish attitude. Stanhope’s at his wit’s end and survives only by drink—an unsettling victim of PTSD, exhaustion, and the sad realization that his young life is approaching its end with so much left to do.

Raleigh finds a braver face in Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a middle-aged schoolmaster who affectionately insists that all boys and men in the company call him “Uncle.” The ensemble of Journey’s End is excellent from Claflin’s shell-shocked Stanhope to Toby Jones’s kindly cook Mason, but as Osborne takes Raleigh under his wing, Bettany and Butterfield develop a father-son/teacher-student relationship that ultimately forms the heart of Journey’s End. Butterfield and Bettany are at their strongest when paired together and find kindred spirits for the father and children they each respectively left back at home. Their relationship finds humanity in the pits of the trenches and challenges the idea of heroism that Raleigh carries into battle. Perhaps a true hero is simply a soldier who looks out for another.

When preparations for a raid put the company on edge as the inevitable battle approaches, Raleigh and Osborne share the unfortunate duty of being the two officers selected to lead the charge. The film offers taut pause as the younger boy and elder officer share a cup of coffee and each try to soothe some nerves in a way that reveals his own experience or lack thereof. Raleigh anxiously wants to know all about battle, while Osborne wants to discuss anything but. Then, finding some common points between their lives back home, the pair forgets all about the battle and recites some Lewis Carroll in a bittersweet moment that deeply humanizes the soldiers about to run towards their deaths. They’re all just boys taken too soon.

This scene also illustrates the valuable role of time in Journey’s End as days and minutes signal the dwindling life expectancy for the men in the trench. The use of a ticking watch to build tension and accentuate ennui in Journey’s End is somewhat misfortunate on the heels of Hans Zimmer’s truly spectacular score for Dunkirk. However, both films use time in innovative and original ways. While the time-play of Journey’s End might not be as intricate and immediately dazzling as Nolan’s maze, it carries ample weight.

The action in Journey’s End comes quickly and fleetingly. Dibb doesn’t glamorize, glorify, or sensationalize war on any measure. Instead, the film focuses on the psychological bombshell of trench warfare and the affliction it causes on all these men as their brothers in arms perish. Dibb plays most of the violence off-screen and on one level, it’s a shrewd use of the confined spatial relations of the dugout that limits the audience’s sightlines to the restricted view from below. On another front, the off-screen warfare is one of the ways in which this stage-to-screen adaptation uses its dramatic origins as part of its battleplan. Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade adapt the 1928 play by R.C. Sherriff and the film finds a complementary dynamic between the confines of the stage and the restrictions of the trenches. The cramped setting, which Dibb and production designer Kristian Milstead realize through an impeccable recreation of disgustingly mucky, smelly, ramshackle hell, uses the interiority of the stage to twists the characters’ cabin fever as they await their fates. Journey’s End intensely conveys the hellish malaise of waiting that goes with war: the more one sits through Journey’s End, the more it feels as if the walls start closing in. If war feels this claustrophobic in the movies, one can’t imagine how awful it is in real life.

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TIFF runs Sept. 7-17. Visit TIFF.net for more info on this year’s festival.