Friday, March 16, 2018

Journey’s End: R.C. Sherriff’s Classic Drama, Back on the Big Screen

R.C. Sherriff’s classic stage play was such a definitive depiction of WWI, Heinz Paul opted to maintain the characters’ Britishness for his 1931 German language film production. Ironically, it would be Aces High, a 1976 Franco-British co-pro that took the most liberties, shifting the drama from the trenches to a fighter squadron. This time around, director Saul Dibb and screenwriter Simon Reade closely follow the original text with their faithful yet still powerful adaptation of Journey’s End (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Hopelessly naïve with respect to the war, 2nd Lt. Raleigh manages to get himself assigned to the infantry company of Captain Stanhope, his senior at school and his sister’s romantic interest. Unfortunately, the war has taken a drastic emotional toll on Stanhope, who now regularly self-medicates with whiskey. Nevertheless, his is still the best trench-level officer in the British Army.

With the launch of what would be known as the Spring Offensive imminent, Raleigh’s timing is downright perverse. In fact, Stanhope bitterly resents his presence, fearing Raleigh will inform his sister of his post-traumatic condition and that Raleigh’s blind hero-worship will lead to his death. The latter concern becomes especially pressing when Stanhope’s superiors order him to dispatch Raleigh and the beloved second-in-command, Lt. “Uncle” Osborne on a dubious daytime raid.

Dibb opens up the drama just a bit, giving viewers a sense of the intricacies of the trenches, but he retains the feeling of airless claustrophobia. Just being there looks like a miserable experience, so it is easy to see how the added tension of the anticipated German attack would try men’s souls. The film itself feels more than sufficiently realistic, but Dibb is also clearly attuned to the institutionalized class differences between officers and the enlisted.

Sam Claflin is terrific and almost terrifyingly intense as Stanhope. It is an achingly brittle performance that actually pairs up nicely with his work in Their Finest, which is tonally quite different, yet shares some overlapping themes. Likewise, Paul Bettany really gives the film depth and soul with his humanistic portrayal of Osborne. Much like he did in Zoo, Toby Jones finds his opportunities to inject pathos and dignity into Mason the cook, who might otherwise be a stock character cliché in someone else’s hands. Frankly, the maturation and disillusionment of Asa Butterfield’s Raleigh seems a bit slow, but his character is really just there to serve as a foil and mirror to Stanhope.

It is nice to see Dibb finally get another film released in American theaters after the Weinsteins dithered away his quality adaptation of Suite Française. This is an even better film that captures the horrifying futility of war without indulging in graphic gore. Highly recommended, Journey’s End opens today (3/16) in New York, at the Landmark 57.