In adapting a play to the screen, there’s a tough balance to strike. You have to retain the essence of the original production without the limitations of that medium carrying over into the film. Earlier this year, Fences was so faithful to the text that its being a film felt rather pointless, and though Journey’s End does not suffer this problem to the same extent, it still can’t quite escape its own staginess.
Based on the RC Fields play, Saul Dibb’s film follows a battalion on the front line of World War One, nervously waiting for a German attack. It’s tremendously well-acted, from Toby Jones putting in a typically good turn as the cook to Sam Claflin outdoing himself as the shattered, hard-drinking Captain Stanhope. With tight close-ups and a low droning score, Journey’s End really captures the cold claustrophobia of the trenches as this battalion wait for inevitable death.
Even by the standards of war, WW1 was an atrociously stupid mess and Claflin gets the desperation of being forced to implement suicidal tactics across with stark efficacy. His misery is compounded when a former schoolmate, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), joins his company as a fresh-faced lieutenant who still believes the war is a jolly old lark. It’s a bog-standard loss of innocence role, but Butterfield does a good job, his baby face a harsh reminder of how young most casualties of war are.
It’s when Journey’s End goes over the top that it falls flat. It’s loyal to the play in its underground sequences, but when it finally gets the chance to be properly cinematic, it fails to impress.
Battles are choppily edited and what should be a heartbreaking death is pulled off in a puzzlingly low-key manner. A worthy war movie that’s too held back by its stage origins.
CAST: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Toby Jones
DIRECTOR: Saul Dibb
WRITERS: Simon Reade (screenplay), R.C. Sherriff
SYNOPSIS: RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End is the seminal British play about WW1. Set in a dugout in Aisne in 1918, it is the story of a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Stanhope, variously awaiting their fate.