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Movie review: Sober WWI drama 'Journey's End' examines the dread of anticipation before battle

POSTED April 13, 2018 9:19 a.m.
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"JOURNEY'S END" — 3 stars — Asa Butterfield, Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones; R (some language and war images); Park City Film Series, April 13-15

Saul Dibb’s “Journey’s End” is an intimate portrait of the final hours before Germany’s Spring Offensive in March 1918 during World War I.

Based on the play and novel from R.C. Sherriff, “Journey's End” follows a small company of British soldiers as they arrive to begin a six-day rotation on the front lines in northern France. The war has been at a stalemate for a year, but rumors suggest the German forces, themselves dug in only yards away, are preparing for a major offensive.

The British leader is Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), a young man aged far beyond his years thanks to his time in battle. The war has turned him from a figure of promise into an alcoholic shell, and when an old school friend Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) is assigned to his company fresh out of training, the contrast between what Stanhope was and what he is now becomes painfully clear.

For his part, Raleigh is the poster child of the innocent boy sent off to war. Even though he is a complete rookie, his officer status puts him in a position of authority over Stanhope’s company of hardened, mud-caked soldiers. Fortunately, when Stanhope gives Raleigh a cold and distant reception, the captain’s second-in-command Osborne (Paul Bettany) is happy to provide a steady hand of guidance.

The inner drama between the soldiers plays out in the slow building tension that awaits the German offensive. A German deserter claims that the battle is due within the week, and Stanhope is dismayed when he learns that his company won’t be getting any reinforcements and are simply under orders to hold off the Germans as long as possible.

Things get worse when Stanhope gets orders to have Raleigh lead a pre-emptive raid on the German lines that, in the light of day, amounts to a suicide mission.

There isn’t a lot of action in “Journey’s End,” and what there is isn’t especially graphic — the film’s R rating is barely justified with some scattered profanity. But the scant battle sequences are intense and meaningful, intended as the dramatic payoff of the characters’ inner battles as opposed to providing simple entertainment.

What’s more interesting about “Journey’s End” is its detail. With a more deliberate pacing and character-driven feel, the audience has more time to peek into the corners of the frame and recognize how different warfare looked 100 years ago. You notice the lack of armament and technology and the bleak squalor.

Of course, the conditions are enhanced by the cinematography, which is desaturated and sepia-toned, favors candlelit interiors of the officer’s underground bunker to the trenches themselves and only rarely gives the audience any kind of establishing scope shots of the entire battlefield.

The effect is claustrophobic and intimate, better suited to focus on Stanhope and his emotional and spiritual wrestle. “Journey’s End” doesn’t really feel like an anti-war film, and it never touches on the stakes of World War I itself. Rather, it feels like a narrow peek at the men who fought in it as they struggled to retain the identities they brought to the battlefield.

At one point, a newly captured German soldier is given some warm tea as he sits shivering in the mud. Something about the image feels significant.

"Journey's End" is rated R for some language and war images; running time: 107 minutes.

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