R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End was a smash hit from the start. Based on his time in the trenches, it’s a deft, funny and quietly devastating play. Sadly, the new film version by Saul Dibb is a damp squib, snuffing the life from Sherriff’s script. Saved only by an excellent cast and a superb performance by Paul Bettany, it’s let down by a director who makes all the wrong choices.
In March 1918, an infantry company led by the older-than-his-years Captain Stanhope returns to the front line, threatened by an imminent German advance. Raleigh, a fresh-faced new officer, has wangled his way into Stanhope’s company, having hero-worshipped him at school. But the war’s taken its toll, and Stanhope is held together only by duty and the bottle, and by the support of ‘Uncle’ Osborne, his second in command. As all hell breaks loose outside, a war of nerves explodes in the dugout.
Saul Dibb (Suite Francaise, The Duchess) is blessed with a brilliant cast. Sam Claflin (Hunger Games, Me Before You) is compelling as the troop’s leader who’s losing it. One of our best upcoming actors, Asa Butterfield (Ender’s Game, Hugo) catches the schoolboy, officer-class innocence of Raleigh, coming to terms with Stanhope’s strain. Toby Jones, as Mason the cook, and Stephen Graham as the ever-hungry Trotter, bring a nuanced blend of comedy and humanity. But it’s Paul Bettany (Master and Commander) as Osborne who makes the film worth watching, a fabulous evocation of decency under fire.
But visually, it all comes apart. Dibb dogs his characters with a camera so irritatingly close it’s like a trench-bound game of ‘What's The Time, Mr Wolf?’. Clearly intending to convey the claustrophobia of the setting, it’s a one-trick move; but Dibb does it time and again. Behind people’s ears, in their faces; and in a pointlessly extended shot he follows a pair of boots through unconvincingly shallow mud that doesn’t evoke Glastonbury, let alone the horrors of the Western Front.
Dibb’s dead-hand approach fails to trust his actors enough - except for Bettany, who’s the only one given room to breathe. Missing the beats that punctuate the play, the film rushes the jokes and banter, and undermines any sense of camaraderie-in-peril. Stanhope’s disintegration is skewed to the point of dramatic irrelevance – it could be any of us undergoing mental anguish. That’s contemporary, maybe. But it lacks the peculiar knife-edge battle of duty and despair of the 1914-1918 generation.
The demise of a character is telegraphed, sapping the surprise and the gut-punch force of it. Stanhope’s crisis of character is over-symbolised in the sloshing of whisky, no longer the secret soak of the play. You hear that Stanhope’s a great leader – but you don’t see it. That’s not Claflin’s fault, it’s a fine performance. But Dibb’s decided to focus on the decline, and there’s less drama there.
Like the wasteland of the landscape, the music by Hildur Gudnadottir (Arrival, Sicario) is deliberately muddy and indistinct; so much so that it’s a surprise over the end credits to see that it consists of several tracks, not one. It’s suitably atmospheric, though, and Dibb does at times ditch it for silence, to good effect.
Sherriff was a screenwriter too – penning Goodbye Mr Chips and the superbly understated The Dam Busters. Sadly, this version of Journey’s End is no sort of tribute to Sherriff’s play, nor to the tradition of deftly written films about war. It’s telling that the film concludes with a caption that millions died in the First World War. Really?
Well-intentioned, Journey’s End just about survives the stifling direction from Saul Dibb, thanks to a wonderfully committed cast. But, like life in Stanhope’s trench, only the sheer pleasure of Paul Bettany’s Osborne makes the film worth bearing.