Asa Butterfield wanders wide-eyed into the maelstrom of combat in this powerful take on RC Sherriff’s World War I play. He’s perfect as Raleigh, a young officer who asks to be assigned to the unit of his old school hero, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), only to find him an angry drunk, shattered by war. It’s the eerie calm before a German offensive and the conflict’s horrors are only visible on the men’s faces. Raleigh will soon carry that look, too – if he lives long enough.
With gallows humour to the fore, ‘Journey’s End’ is by no means relentlessly grim. Toby Jones brings levity as the Baldrick-like cook serving up unidentifiable dishes to the men, while Stephen Graham’s tommy brings sharp banter. Most engaging is Paul Bettany’s tender, sage Lieutenant Osborne. This former schoolteacher is the film’s heartbeat: one scene with the fraying Raleigh is devastating. Sherriff based the play on his own experiences in the trenches, and there’s a tangible, crushing authenticity here.
Set over just four days, the film’s narrow focus lends intimacy. Time is taken with each character, making the bursts of action all the more potent. Director Saul Dibb has already given us two solid period dramas in ‘The Duchess’ and ‘Suite Française’, but this is his best yet.