There’s no mistaking it. Saul Dibb’s “Journey’s End” looks, feels and plays exactly like the prototypical World War I movie, the kind we’ve all seen dozens of times already, if not more. But although that might read like some sort of insult, it’s not. It’s objectively true.
“Journey’s End” was originally written by English playwright R.C. Sherriff and first performed in 1928. Its intimate, suspenseful, and ultimately rather bleak portrayal of life and death in the trenches was adapted to the big screen by James Whale (“Frankenstein”) in 1930, and it has been remade and reinterpreted many, many more times over course of the last 90 years. The story and characters were so iconic that “Black Adder” did a whole season satirizing “Journey’s End,” and although it was hilarious, the episodes still managed to be earnestly mournful.
The new film, like most of the others, takes place in the British trenches in World War I, just yards away from the Germans. Tramping through the mud, the soldiers try to live like there’s some sort of tomorrow, but they know it’s only a matter of time before they will be asked to run over the wall, or before the Germans will come for them. Supplies are low, spirits are lower, and hope is AWOL.
Asa Butterfield (“The Space Between Us”) stars as Raleigh, a young soldier who only just arrived at the front, and who immediately requests to placed in the company of his old friend Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who is romantically involved with Raleigh’s sister. But the violence and terrors of continued warfare have frayed everybody’s nerves, and though once friendly and inspirational, Capt. Stanhope spends most of his time drowning his anxieties in liquor.
Raleigh, a child at heart (if not by age), is hardly a breath of fresh air for Stanhope’s company. To Stanhope, Raleigh is a reminder of how far he’s fallen, to be met only with suspicion and shame. The only person Stanhope truly trusts is Lt. Osborne (Paul Bettany), a former schoolteacher and the only person who seems capable of consistently keeping his head, a task which clearly weighs him down.
If there’s one thing director Dibb (“The Duchess”) understands, it’s muck. His characters trudge through slimy dirt in every scene, and their lives are equally mired as their boots. “Journey’s End” features scenes of wartime violence, but it’s mostly a character study staged in dimly lit underground bunkers, where the characters all find themselves huddled. One gets the distinct impression that they’d spend a lot of their time sitting in miserable silence if Raleigh hadn’t shown up, with no clue as to what awaits him or what’s in his company’s past. And one completely understands how little comfort he would be.
“Journey’s End” has been staged, and restaged, and inspired so many other similar stories that it’s now become difficult for the original to have a truly profound impact. Dibb dramatizes these events skillfully (Simon Reade wrote the adaptation of Sherriff’s play and novel) and has assembled a sturdy and dependable cast, but this new film doesn’t have a particularly new take on the material. It’s “Journey’s End,” told again, and told quite well. So whether or not it will astound you has a lot to do with how familiar you are with the source material.
Regardless of the baggage this story brings with it, or that anyone in the audience might have, there are moments of real beauty in Dibb’s version. Bettany gives an exemplary performance, soft yet steady. The highlight of this whole production is a moment that he shares with Butterfield, minutes before they have to climb the wall, probably to their certain doom.
Lt. Osborne, weary, wants to enjoy what will most assuredly be his last few minutes of peace by pretending the war does not exist and chit-chatting about nothing in particular. Raleigh can barely contain his excitement, or his nerves, and he wants to talk of nothing but their mission. Together they strive to have their half of the conversation, to each other’s frustration. They are together and apart, before and after, young and old, naive and wise, and they meet in the middle: Scared and scared.
There’s a word for a film like the new “Journey’s End,” and that word is “respectable.” There’s nothing about this production that falls flat; there’s nobody who doesn’t do their job. The film builds a fine and specific sense of place, the actors give performances we can believe in, and the drama is as tragic as one could reasonably expect.
Dibb’s adaptation will have less of an impact if you aren’t seeing this story play out for the first time, but if you are seeing it for the first time, it’s probably going to break your heart.