By Liam Lacey
To a degree, you should expect the expected in Journey's End, a film adaptation of a venerable British play set over four days in a World War I trench. Within its limits though, this is a gripping, well-acted production that conveys a powerful sense of war's absurdity.
R. C. Sherriff's drama was first staged in 1928, with a young Laurence Olivier, in the cast, and has been a staple of the English repertory ever since, the all-male cast making it a natural for boys' school productions. Though somewhat less known on this side of the Atlantic, there was a James (Frankenstein) Whale film made in 1930, and an air-borne version called Aces High.
The plot is your basic depiction of hell in a foxhole. In the last months of the war, in Northern France, C-company arrives to take its turn on the front. The officers are informed that the German Spring Offensive is imminent. Vastly outnumbered, and with no back-up, the company has no expectation of success.
The characters feel familiar, perhaps from the many war films that have followed the play's template: There's the eager fresh-from-college greenhorn, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield ), who has pulled strings to join a former school monitor and beau of his sister, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) in what he thinks will be a "frightfully exciting" experience. But Stanhope is embittered, shell-shocked, and drowning his fears in alcohol every night.
Raleigh gets some comfort from Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a gentle former schoolteacher, and the play's incarnation of selfless nobility. Rounding out the cast is Tom Sturridge as the frightened Hibbert and Toby Jones as a stoical working-class chef, listening into the officers' talk as he provides tea, whiskey and the latest canned food.
What might have slipped into cliche feels surprisingly timeless here, thanks to Saul Dibb’s taut adaptation and the cast’s understated performances. The drama of fear and distraction anticipates theatre of the absurd, especially Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (Sheriff originally considered titling his play, Waiting). The characters pass what will their remaining time talking about the contents of the meat cutlets and hoping for canned pineapples instead of apricots.
The trenches themselves, sometimes conveyed as simple ditches, are portrayed as a complex system of zig-zagging underground rooms with connected passage ways, that suggest rats' warrens. Between production designer Kristian Milsted and cinematographer Laurie Rose, we have a keen sense that this mud-brown space, while grave-like in its claustrophobia, is removed from the carnage that awaits the soliders mere meters away.
Near the end of the film, when the company stages a raid to capture an enemy soldier, it's both terrifying and liberating, like the lid has been taken off the pressure cooker.
Journey's End. Directed by Saul Dibb. Written by Simon Reade and R.C. Sheriff. Starring: Sam Claflin, Asa Butterfield, Paul Bettany, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge. Journey's End can be seen at Cineplex Varsity,
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR SAUL DIBB
The film version of Journey's End was commissioned back in 2014 by the United Kingdom's First World War Centenary. It's a measure of the play's reputation, that Prince Andrew himself intervened to resolve a rights issue to get the film made.
In the months leading up to the production, the British press was abuzz with news of the casting: Benedict Cumberbatch? Tom Hiddleston? Eddie Redmayne? The original director was intended to be David Grindley, who directed a successful stage production that had gone to Broadway in 2007.
When the dust settled, and the proposed stars went on to their superhero movies, the project fell to Saul Dibb, a director previously known for such features as Suite Francaise, The Duchess, and a made-for-TV movie of Zadie Smith's contemporary London novel, NW.
Dibb, who turns fifty this year, made a rather radical decision not to work from the play, or any of the several previous film or television versions. Instead, his source material was a 1930 novel, which Sheriff co-wrote with Vernon Bartlett, which filled in the emotional lives and backgrounds of the characters. The screenplay was written by Simon Reade.
"Working with the novelization gave us a very different way in; it suggested lots of other scenes and things you could think about visually that weren't in the play. I mean, it's a classic text, but if you're too reverent, it can't be fresh."
While the story is a period piece, Dibb said he was particularly struck by the portrayal of "what we now call PTSD, or post-trauamatic distress disorder. I'm sure that's what Captain Stanhope would be diagnosed with now. Then, they called it shell shock but even that was denied at the time. But you can see it in his sense of fear and dislocation, and how he abuses alcohol to deal with the experiences he's been through."
"As a writer, Sheriff was more or less hovering over a reality he had himself been through. And, having talked to a lot of guys who have been in the military, you see how they deflect uncomfortable emotions, with humour and distraction. The phrase "stiff upper lip" suggests a coldness, but it's really about that deflection of emotions. The vernacular has changed, but how people relate hasn't."
Dibb acknowledges that the characters in Journey's End are, unavoidably, familiar from innumerable war dramas: "You begin with what appear to be archetypes, and then you try to get beyond them, to find their specific beauty and sorrow of the characters, and their peculiarities. You begin to recognize how people are contradictory -- they're both brave and cowardly, kind and cruel. And any idea of archetypes will, I hope, be forgotten."
And how, finally, how can this 90-year-old drama speak to contemporary audiences?
"Well," says Dibb, "You have these men put there in this absurd situation, where they are supposed to "lightly defend" an indefensible position and they'll likely die. And for me, the idea is that there must be this anger, this subtly righteous anger behind it all, about this enormous sense of waste.
And on this 100th anniversary, we're seeing right-wing people trying to untie these allegiances that have basically, kept us living in peace for three generations, which is an extraordinary achievement. And that's something else I find incredibly infuriating. We need to remember what has happened before."