Updated: Oct 15, 2018
Directed by Saul Dibb
Written by Simon Reade
Starring Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones & Tom Sturridge
BFI London Film Festival Review by Dean Pettipher
One struggles to comprehend why on earth World War I does not receive nearly as much attention in the entertainment industries as World War II, or, indeed, even other noteworthy conflicts including the Cold War. Not just filmmakers but indeed videogame developers seem to behave as if venturing into the Great War is a sort of no man’s land, where a paralysing uncertainty around the film’s box office potential especially hold aspiring storytellers at bay, left with ostensibly little choice but the pursuit of the safer avenues. Regarding the latter medium of entertainment, the only example that one might be able to think of immediately is Battlefield 1 (2016). While the fact that even critically-acclaimed masterpieces like A Very Long Engagement (2004) that did not far exceed its budget and so struggled to raise the morale of those keen to delve into tales of the Western Front and bring them to life on the silver screen, hope loiters defiantly in the wake of impressive box office successes that took on the meticulously-studied topic, such as War Horse (2011), which was the highest grossing World War I movie until, believe it or not, Wonder Woman (2017). The BFI London Film Festival 2017 (LFF 2017) featured a picture that will not break through the line over towards any noteworthy records. Nonetheless, a splendid war movie awaits avid fans of the genre, with an assemblage of superb stars who, along with the wonderful crew, propel the film to the frontline with some of the most superb World War I films of all-time. The team behind Journey’s End (2017) may comfortably stand at ease, for the spoils of their labour are evident in a harrowing tale overflowing with emotion towards a depth of profound sentiment that speaks volumes concerning their artistic talents.
Leading the glorious acting masterclass of the ensemble is a remarkable performance from Sam Claflin, whose becoming presence upon the screen provides the source of the most intense, poignant and scarring emotional bombardments of the story. Claflin portrays a clearly good man, who appears so broken by the terrors of war and the heartless class structure epitomised by the military with which he so nobly serves, that insanity incessantly looms within his waning mind and increasingly shattered heart. Claflin proves in his latest outing in the movies that he is only just treading the lowlands towards the peak of the enormous mountain that his potential as an actor seems, almost inevitably, set to lead him. Moreover, Claflin’s journey in cinema is not dissimilar from that embarked upon years before by Leonardo DiCaprio, who, after his breakthrough role in Titanic (1997), was determined to prove to the world and to himself that he was far more than a mere pretty-faced teenage heart-throb, succeeding in his argument principally with films including The Aviator (2004) and Blood Diamond (2006). Likewise, Claflin has come a long way since his intriguing work on The Hunger Games series (2012-2015) and his impressive feats with Me Before You (2016), evident not only in Journey’s End but also the war drama that he starred in last year entitled Their Finest (2016) and more recently My Cousin Rachel (2017). Claflin’s grasp of the more mature roles is truly astonishing and he should undoubtedly attract attention from the highest ranks of Hollywood for prestigious honours, including the Oscars, if he continues to be given the right chances, in the form of increasingly challenging roles, with which he will ceaselessly bring his own quintessential emotional intricacies to life.
The music and the writing dance together brilliantly, save for the moments where one wishes that there was even more of both during particular climactic scenes or key moments of character development. The woebegone but beautiful, deep melodies create a constant sense of impending danger, growing frustration and even all but unavoidable defeat. The writing expertly targets and hits at the heart of each soldier in the unit, compelling the audience to care deeply for each of them and ponder over those questions of morality surrounding the Great War that have been asked and debated for centuries, such as, “Why on earth did so many have to suffer and perish for so little?” Note that such questions concern the excruciatingly small amount gained in terms of the opposition’s battlefield territories. For, on the other hand, it is clear, within minutes of the film commencing, that the sacrifice made by the soldiers amounted to a magnitude that the generations set to follow them would never truly comprehend. What is easier to understand is that Journey’s End is a fantastic adaptation, which, incidentally, was inspired by a play written by R. C. Sheriff, which, of course, was in turn inspired by the true events that made up World War I. One would eagerly recommend the play for certain, for Journey’s End is a tale that has proven to be so excellently told through each of the different art forms. One may be understandably enjoyed more than the other but neither one shall disappoint.
Journey’s End will linger within the soul like a chillingly unsettling ghost of a traumatic past, in all its bitter sweetness, for all of the right reasons. Chiefly, the picture proves yet again that a magnificent war story can be told with World War I is the chosen setting. It remains far too early to tell if the critical acclaim will translate to a victory at the box office. However, audiences will not soon forget the valiant effort made by the cast and crew to make a spectacular movie. More importantly, they will have been reminded just how crucial it is to hold dear the memories of the tremendous sacrifices made by the soldiers, on all sides of the conflict, in the wake of unmistakably nefarious odds. So expertly has their plight been interpreted for the silver screen with Journey’s End that one can only hope that the true tragedies and triumphs from which the film was given life are never, ever forsaken and forgotten.
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