Review – WW1 drama ‘Journey’s End’ explores the agony of waiting for violence

Poster for 2018 war drama Journey's End

Genre: Drama
Certificate: 12
UK Release Date: 2nd February 2018
Runtime: 108 minutes
Director: Saul Dibb
Writer: Simon Reade
Starring: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister, Miles Jupp
Synopsis: An optimistic young soldier enthusiastically applies to join a company led by a former school friend, despite the fact they’re due in the trenches ahead of an imminent German assault.



There seems to have been something of a deluge of war movies in recent years. This is particularly true in the world of British cinema, with Dunkirk ruling over the summer box office and Gary Oldman on course to win his first Oscar for his take on Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Going slightly back in time is Journey’s End, which is a new adaptation of a well-loved 1920s play set during the dying days of the First World War. It’s a tonally different and character-driven war movie that wisely shifts bullets and spectacle into the background to focus on the men.

Director Saul Dibb, whose last film was the disappointing Second World War romance Suite Française, wisely mimics the visual structure of the play. The film is mostly confined to the inside of the officers’ dugout, with the volleying of words far more tense and interesting than a bullet ballet. Dibb’s film trades in the omnipresent threat of violence, rather than the actual practice of killing, and that’s what lends it its power. The trench warfare of the First World War was, in many ways, a waiting game, and Journey’s End depicts that tension perfectly.

That tension and paranoia manifests most clearly in Sam Claflin‘s shell-shocked Captain Stanhope, who enlisted as a well-rounded young man, but has been hollowed out into drunkenness and hair trigger temper by what he has seen and what he fears he will see. It’s into his world that idealistic Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) puts himself, keen to spend time with Stanhope, whom he knew before the war. Raleigh joins fellow officers Osborne (Paul Bettany) and Trotter (Stephen Graham) in the officers’ quarters, where they all must face Stanhope’s drunken wrath as they wait for a German attack that could come at any time.



Journey’s End makes the absolute most of the inherent staginess of its setting. The cramped environs of the officers’ dugout allows for real tension, with the flickering candlelight proving to be the perfect vessel for the intense, believable performances. These turns are uniformly excellent, whether it’s Claflin’s ferociously troubled man in charge or Paul Bettany as a world-weary family man with everything to lose. Comic relief comes from Toby Jones as the chef serving tea that’s “a bit oniony” and refusing to specify which animal provided the day’s cutlets.

The visuals may largely be cramped and dark, but that allows cinematographer Laurie Rose – best known for his work as Ben Wheatley‘s right-hand man – to spread his wings in unusual ways. Rose brings atmosphere in abundance and conjures some remarkable colour in the more extravagant scenes, including in a fiery dream sequence featuring Claflin all alone. Given the restrictions on its visual palette, it’s remarkable how beautiful the film is.

It’s the emotion, though, that lingers when the credits roll on Journey’s End. Like all of the best war movies, it’s a film that focuses on the people touched by war rather than fetishising the glamour of violence. It ends with a gut punch to rival any depicted on the big screen this year, with Dibb showcasing a true mastery of tone throughout. With the help of a stellar cast, this is a bleak and brilliant portrait of what war does to a man.


Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

In the wake of a tonne of recent war movies, Journey’s End stands out as one with real resonance and impact. Saul Dibb joins forces with a cast that features the absolute best of British talent in order to depict the agony and paranoia of being forced to wait in the trenches for death to come. Sam Claflin, especially, delivers another of his trademark turns of wrathful intensity.


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