Members of a World War I British army unit struggle to cope while waiting anxiously for an offensive of German soldiers to arrive in “Journey’s End,” a surprisingly affecting adaptation of a 90-year-old play about humanity and intimacy on the front lines.
Directed by Saul Dibb (“The Duchess”), the film, opening Friday at the Vogue Theatre, is based on R. C. Sherriff’s 1928 play, a work ingrained in the British consciousness. It’s been adapted for the screen several times, first in 1930 with James Whale directing and this time with Simon Reade penning the drama.
The story transpires during Germany’s “spring offensive” in 1918 and centers on a company of British officers involved in trench fighting in northern France.
The men learn that German soldiers are approaching. Each has his own way of handling the stress.
Stanhope (Sam Claflin), the company’s crumbling captain, drowns himself in whiskey.
Osborne (Paul Bettany), Stanhope’s stable, decent, second-in-command, thinks about his rosy life back home. Trotter (Stephen Graham) talks incessantly.
New blood arrives in the form of fresh-out-of-training Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who has pulled strings to serve under Stanhope, an old schoolmate and the romantic interest of Raleigh’s sister, Margaret. Raleigh’s presence distresses Stanhope, who desperately worries that his frayed, whiskey-soaked condition will become known to Margaret via a letter from her brother.
The tension escalates after the men receive orders to perform a daytime raid, which will likely cost some their lives. Osborne and Raleigh are to lead the mission. Both, trying not to show it, are terrified.
On the surface, Dibb has made a conventional, respectable bunker drama. But he steers smoothly, tells a story efficiently, and has a way with character and emotion. He’s created a tense, graceful and sometimes harrowing picture of the human toll of war.
The film may lack thick-of-the-action thrills — one might call it the anti-“Dunkirk” — but as audiences become acquainted intimately with the characters, and as the dread intensifies in the air, they’re invested in the protagonists’ predicaments.
The action scenes, while not Dibb’s specialty, deliver what’s needed. Particularly effective is the raid sequence, which doesn’t suggest glory or spectacle, but instead features chaos and terror.
Playing young men facing possible, even probable, doom, the actors are magnificent.
Claflin, as the troubled but caring Stanhope, a PTSD case before that diagnosis existed, and Bettany, whose Osborne is a moving portrait of dignity under duress, especially shine.
Scenes in which Osborne puts the drunken Stanhope to bed or tries to distract the eager Raleigh from the realities of their impending mission are among numerous moments of exquisite humanity.
Toby Jones, too, is aboard, in the role of Mason, the unit’s quietly observant cook.
Starring: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham
Written by: Simon Reade
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes