- Journey's End (2018)
The first world war is months from resolution, a group of soldiers still faces tough battles, be it with the enemy on the front or their own demons. We’re joining them in trenches to observe their daily life without the ever-present labels of glory, and Journey’s End lets us see it for what it is through the eyes of soldiers stuck in a dugout somewhere in France.
In 1918, a group of soldiers in Aisne await the hit from the enemy that can come any day. They’re lead by the senior officer Stanhope, who maintains his decisive persona when he’s around the soldiers but struggles to keep it together when there’s no one to see him. He escapes the dugout with the alcohol, falling back on support from his companion: Osborne, a wise, warm man who becomes his confidante. When the brother of the girl he’s courting appears, Stanhope spirals into the despair and self-doubt. He knows the impact of the war on himself and the others and fears that it turned him into somebody who’d be difficult to recognise outside of the trenches. However, it’s just the beginning of the story of friendships, fear and human behaviour in extremely straining circumstances.
The film gives Sam Claflin a chance to show his insane dramatic chops in a period picture once again. He continues to build a line-up of varied work that displays his broad range – and his performance in Journey’s End adds to his wide-ranging list of films, from the Hollywood blockbusters to The Riot Club, Their Finest and My Cousin Rachel. He shares the screen with Paul Bettany as Osborne, an empathetic and charismatic second officer in command, and Asa Butterfield as Raleigh, a wide-eyed, optimistic soldier with an intense sense of duty. Both of them create very distinctive character portraits; they add to a mix of personalities, creating a heartfelt atmosphere in the place that appears to be hopeless at first.
The phenomenal connection between cast members is at the heart of this film. And Bettany’s character sums it up early on with a simple gesture: Osborne turns to Raleigh asking him to be called “uncle”. There’s a powerful sense of kinship between men stuck in this confined space, and although the formal relationships between them are still present, during the long wait they become almost like a family. The secrets they share – some of them appearing of no relevance at the frontline – bring them much closer together. The subtle arguments between Mason (Toby Jones) and the rest of the team provide for even more realistic atmosphere. Between Claflin and Butterfield, their characters’ relationship built on the grounds outside of the army turns almost fatherly. Both actors play off each other to take full advantage of this effect.
Even the joint moments of fear, when Osborne asks his younger companion to talk about anything else but the war, move you at the deepest level. It wouldn’t be easy to understand by anyone outside of the closed environment if it wasn’t for Butterfield and Bettany. The admission of fear – being so open about it – strikes you right in the heart, revealing the realities of the war beyond the expectations imposed on the soldiers. There’s toughness, but it’s presented as decisiveness and courage, without any unnecessary showdown of masculinity in sight. The characters deal with difficult feelings and reveal them to each other with a bit of initial prudence, which helps to create such a believable study of people in traumatising circumstances. They talk about their fears, which offers such a refreshing, healthy perspective. It challenges what the war movies frequently impose on themselves by flexing their heroism without humanism. In Journey’s End, it’s a complete opposite. And this collective portrait of vulnerability, masqueraded underneath the challenges of day-to-day in the trenches, presents bravery and sacrifice as much stronger.
When the words turn the soldiers closer to each other, the despised dugout feels a lot more intimate. With the help of the setting and camera work, the acting craft in the film can shine fully. The tension created by Saul Gibb makes use of the cast highlighting their abilities, but also utilises the environment to complete the picture of the life at the frontline. The majority of the scenes are staged in a closed space without any daylight. However, the director manages to utilise that to create a potent background for the growing relationships. If last year’s Dunkirk used three different timelines and a swathe of space to build on the experience, Journey’s End stays low-key to make the most of the emotional factor. With excellent dramaturgy, the setting contributes to the ever-present tension, all captured skilfully by the cinematographer Laurie Rose.
Without glorifying the terror of war and allowing itself to be authentic, Journey’s End presents us with carefully prepared and splendidly acted character portrayals. Rethinking the life at the front, it allows the complexity of the emotions to come to the fore, presenting the life in the trenches for what it actually is.
Journey’s End opens in the UK on the 2nd of February 2018.