Set in the trenches of World War I, Director Saul Dibb‘s adaption of R.C. Sherriff’s play of the same name, Journey’s End charts the combat life of British soldiers as they await an oncoming German attack.
The film opens as Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a newly graduated officer, arrives at the Western Front. He has come to join and fight with an old classmate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin): a man, who like many in the war, has been psychologically changed. Journey’s End is dependent upon the change that comes to the psyche when one’s life is literally ticking away.
The most obvious examples are Stanhope and Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who had once been healthy young men, but are now reduced to alcoholics with a “limited” capacity to ignore the nightmares of war. The two characters become emblematic of a psychologically lost generation, as English cultural mores demanded a stiff upper-lip and knew little of shell shock other than, as a signification of a weak constitution. British literature is decorated by these figures, with one of the more notable ones being Septimus in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Nevertheless, as Sturridge and Claflin’s characters’ emotional integrity crumble, there’s a balance between their sense of duty, with the search to find some hidden and safe part of themselves still intact from before the war.
The use of England’s cultural history is something that only an English writer would know, or connect with. Cue screenwriter: Simon Reade. Because while there has always been a delineation between ranks, that is officers and conscripted men, in the British army that difference was tenfold. That is, the army was a continuation of the class system. While most officers hailed from varying boarding schools, many attending the same (like Stanhope and Raliegh), the conscripted men tended to be tradesmen.
Journey’s End demonstrates this in subtle instances, such as Stanhope becoming enraged by Raleigh eating with his men rather than the officers, or the dependency upon “downstairs” literature. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey is aware of this genre, when parts of the story are observed from a servant’s perspective. Mason’s (Toby Jones) eavesdropping and gossiping of every outburst from Stanhope, every breakdown from Hibbert, and every crumb of information dropped off the dinner table is emblematic of this movement. It’s a daring reminder, for the period (Journey’s End, the play, was published in 1928), that the upper class were no different than the lower class.
Additionally, Journey’s End succeeds at representing the claustrophobic experience of trench warfare. Not until the very end is there more than one open shot. Every other shot is either within the closed earthen wooden walls of the trench, or within a doorway, or a small “office.” Much of this is dependent upon excellent framing.
This claustrophobia is heightened by the use of a fantastic soundscape, as low mournful strings invade every hint of “silence” or action. This use of sound also carries over to the rumbling of German tanks and trains in the background. Every character knows that a German attack is coming, as does the audience, the sound is a reminder of that fact. Put in tandem with the constant “ticking” of a “clock,” reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and Journey’s End causes our nerves to be as frenetic and frayed as the soldiers on screen. Put simply, the soundscape is engrossing and frightful.
Throughout the film, we’re also greeted by stunning performances. Paul Bettany as Lieutenant Osborne, in particular. As opposed to Claflin’s emotionally raw demonstration, Bettany is the definition of subtly.
When his Osborne and Butterfield’s Raleigh prepare for a raid, we follow, as he mentally and emotionally prepares himself. We observe as an unflappable character remains unflappable, considering the situation, yet must resign himself to the possibility that he may perish. It’s an amazing sequence given more psychological weight as he knows the exact time the raid will commence. I think this might be Bettany’s best performance of his career (though some might argue for A Beautiful Mind).
Dibb should also be commended, as should Laurie Rose‘s cinematography, which contributes to a set filled with mud by being shot in earthtones and letting his camera observe every crevice of the English trench, and every portion of every man, from their heads down to their feet.
As Journey’s End builds and climaxes to its eventual conclusion, we’re left dreading the inevitable. Hoping that war is not war. That everyone goes home happy. While realizing that even if everyone goes home, through the horrors they’ve been exposed to and the shell shock that will invade their minds as violently as the Germans across the field, they probably won’t return home happy.