Director Saul Dibb follows up his WW2 drama Suite Francaise with this WW1 account of life in the trenches, marking the centenary of the battle it depicts. British First World War accounts have been appropriated along with the poppy by the Tommy Robinsons of the world. Films tend to be caught between this Brexit bound interpretation and the devastating comedy of Blackadder 4. By revising a 1928 play, Journey’s End sidesteps these concerns to give us a portrayal that immediately seems human and authentic.
It follows the account of a group of officers led by the unravelling Stanhope. He is joined by fresh faced Raleigh who knows him from home & is the brother of Stanhope’s sweetheart, and with his second in command Paul Bettany (with solo my 2nd Bettany film in as many days). Each company must spend an allocated six days in the front line. The big German offensive is expected any day, so each company is hoping to last their six days before it start, an extended form of Russian roulette.
One of the problems of the First World War which make it uncinematic, was that it was characterised by long periods of inactivity. Grim, sitting in mud, picking out fleas, catching all manner of disease, eating rats inactivity, but inactivity nonetheless. As David Roup says of evolution, it is “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic.” Much the same seems to be true of life in the trenches. At one point Raleigh discovers that Bettany’s character played rugby for England, but when he asks if the other men know, Bettany replies “it doesn’t really make much difference out here”. They are in a different world with its own time frame and values. And this is one that it is not always easy to translate to the screen while remaining faithful to the experience. The best WW1 account I’ve seen was Owen Sheers Mametz, which was a play that took place in a rainy forest in Wales, with reconstructed trenches. At least there we could feel the mud.
Central to the film is a raid to capture a German ordered by high command, which everyone knows to be a ridiculous venture. Furthermore it needs to be accomplished in daylight because the generals have a conference later. They only have one hole in the german defences because it took too long to realise. In this utter disregard for human life the social revolutions back home were cemented. The restrained anger and simmering resentment at the upper classes as they send people to certain death fermented into the downfall of the aristocracy during the 20s and 30s. Raleigh is chosen despite his naivety for this raid, along with Bettany’s Osborne. The scene as they prepare for the raid, with the former full of nervous anticipation and the latter in full knowledge of what is to come is heartbreaking & a masterpiece in what lies beneath the spoken dialogue.
It’s not entirely successful in maintaining an overall narrative drive, and it flags in places, but the cast are all superb, including Toby Jones and Stephen Graham as more sympathetic, lower ranking officers. Overall it gives an account that is raw and true.