Journey’s End: An unsent letter from the front
by Vassilis Economou
- British filmmaker Saul Dibb adapts RC Sherriff’s iconic WWI dramatic play, which hasn’t lost its edge 90 years on from its original performance
British director and scriptwriter Saul Dibb has quite an eclectic filmography. Though he started with the realistic indie crime-drama Bullet Boy (2004), he immediately veered towards more historical genres, first with his period drama The Duchess [+see also:
film profile] (2008) and later with his World War II romance Suite Française [+see also:
film profile] (2014). Dibb continues his journey through different eras by adapting a recently rediscovered novelisation of RC Sherriff’s classic World War I dramatic play Journey’s End [+see also:
interview: Saul Dibb
film profile], which is having a Gala screening at the 61st BFI London Film Festival.
The end of the Great War approaches, but the British Army’s C Company, led by Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), has been stationed for months in the trenches at Mont Saint-Quentin in Northern France, waiting for a German offensive. It is Monday 18 March 1918, and young Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) decides to join the company. He has just completed his training, although he prefers to be on the front line in order to be with his former schoolmate, Stanhope. However, his arrival does not receive as warm a welcome as he had hoped, as Stanhope has changed during the war. Struggling with his inner horrors and thoughts – an undiagnosed form of PTSD – he is now an alcoholic shadow of his former self, and no more the man that Raleigh knew and his sister loved. The only one who Stanhope really trusts is veteran Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a seasoned schoolteacher who recently returned to the battlefields. Slowly, every character will lift the lid on his fears, and the tension that emerges among them will intensify as the German attack approaches and they are required to stall it.
A war veteran himself, Sherriff wrote his play in 1928, just ten years after the Armistice, and it was a great success, with Laurence Olivier in the role of Stanhope. It was almost immediately adapted into a film in 1930, and since then, Journey’s End has seen multiple adaptations, even a German one that was banned by the Nazis. Despite this 90-year-old burden, Dibb’s version, which was scripted by dramatist and co-producer Simon Reade, doesn’t have a dated, dull theatricality to it. Certainly, the events depicted and the characters need to be in line with a strict historical accuracy, which is intensified by an almost poetic series of dialogues that are more in keeping with a rather social, and less military, hierarchy, but the close-knit war drama still feels contemporary.
During a story that lasts only four days, Dibb handles an all-male ensemble of heroes who need to co-exist and evolve in the extremely claustrophobic, muddy surroundings of the officers’ dugout, lensed by Laurie Rose. Nothing is beautified or sublimated, and this is not an anti-war story, as it keeps realism above any other secondary message. Sherriff wanted to depict the sheer horror that he lived through and created an ode to those who were sacrificed, here transformed into a requiem by Natalie Holt’s score and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s cello. Thanks to the convincing performances by the three lead actors, and indeed the whole cast, this suspenseful fear is conveyed convincingly to the viewer and creates a finely balanced contradiction between the delicacy of the protagonists and the unfiltered rawness of war. Through its meticulous study of touching human stories, Journey’s End becomes an unsent letter from the front, written by those who were lost and never commemorated.
Journey’s End is a British production by Guy de Beaujeu (Fluidity Films) and Simon Reade, and it was supported by the BFI and Wales Screen. London-based Metro Films International handles the international sales.
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