Director: Saul Dibb
Journey’s End is one of the better films of 2018 that you’ve never heard of. It came out roughly a year ago, first in England and then in the States, and it made no impact at all. I guess that’s not surprising; it’s a simply story about WWI with little action and no publicity, an under-the-radar war film if ever there was one. WWII is more popular, and Hollywood likes to focus on Americans, which I guess makes some kind of sense, so it’s not shocking that a more subtle approach to the horror of that time period, one set mostly in the trenches, wasn’t a huge, electrifying hit. But I’m here to tell you that it should have been, based on quality alone, and it’s the best Saul Dibb has ever brought us, while also exhibiting perhaps the best performances its three lead actors have ever brought to the screen.
The year is 1918 and the Great War wages on, as British and German troops face off across the trenches of France in a stalemate that kills the soul as quickly as it kills young men. Captain Stanhope is in command of a group of soldiers who must man the line for six days, their turn at duty, before they are relieved. It’s quite a gamble, knowing that a German offensive is coming soon but not knowing when; will you be dead in the mud in the next few hours or will you make it back to base alive? The waiting and the wondering are enough to drive men mad, and Stanhope is close to that designation, held up only by his second in command, the wise Lieutenant Osborne, who men call Uncle because of his “advanced age”. At the same time, the youngest and newest member of their company arrives, an officer straight out of school called Raleigh. He and Stanhope know each other from home, but this only aids in pushing the fragile Captain further toward the edge, as he remembers those he left behind and looks ahead to a gruesome death that he feels sure is coming for them all.
I missed this film when it came out just like everyone else did, this WWI drama that looked no different than others we’ve seen before, that stars a few names but none huge enough to demand attention. And yet it quietly delivers one of the best and most powerful stories of the year, this snapshot of a time period so fraught with disgusting debasement that we’ve tried our best to forget it altogether. Millions of boys died in filth for nothing, and perhaps because that can’t be explained away we’ve chosen to ignore it, and I can’t completely blame us. But Journey’s End brings us closer to understanding what it must have been like to be there in the trenches with your brothers, and for that I both thank and hate it. The depth of the plot blew me away, but what was really surprising were the performances: Claflin with the strongest I’ve ever seen from him, Butterfield perhaps finally growing up, and Bettany, who we should know by now as a transcendent talent, delivering something so solid and so simple that it takes time to understand as also an acting masterpiece. If you are a student of history and you missed this movie when it was released, remedy the mistake most of us made, and don’t be surprised if you have a new title to add to the top of your yearly list.
My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆