Film

The Claustrophobic “Journey’s End” Looks at Soldiers Preparing for Battle

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Based on a 1928 stage drama by R.C. Sherriff, Journey’s End is the tight, claustrophobic story of a British infantry company just days before Operation Michael, a major German military offensive. The pervasive sense of dread is belied by the unexpected warmth of the film’s characters, in particular Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), the second in command, who steadies his slowly disintegrating commander. Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) has refused to take leave out of a sense of duty and smothers his severe PTSD symptoms with alcohol. He flies into rages over such small matters as missing condiments.

Osborne’s men call him “uncle,” but he’s less avuncular than maternal toward the soldiers. He tells them stories about gardening with his family and pretending with his children that there was no war. In the minutes before an ill-conceived raid, he insists on the same temporary pretense with a frightened new officer, a small moment to savor being alive. This warmth is a gift of Bettany’s, a thread connecting most of his characters, perfectly deployed here.

The daylight raid is an opportunity for director Saul Dibb to illustrate the insularity of the officer class from the troops. Ordered to execute the mission before 7 p.m., Captain Stanhope knows the deadline is because the colonel wants the results in time for dinner; he can barely conceal his rage. But his blasts of fury are matched by explosions of empathy for his troops. Claflin projects pain and heartbreak, and surgically excises Stanhope’s defenses through the film’s third act. Though set at a specific moment in time, the film could be about terminal cancer patients or condemned prisoners, a deeply felt catalog of the behaviors of men who know they’re about to die.

Journey’s End
Directed by Saul Dibb
Lionsgate
Opens March 16, Landmark 57

 

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