Saturday 10 February 2018

Men in war: "Journey's End"

I was going to suggest that Saul Dibb's new screen version of R.C. Sherriff's WWI-set play Journey's End had arrived in UK cinemas at just the right moment, with Dunkirk fever carrying over into the 2018 awards season, and audiences queuing up to watch Gary Oldman huff and puff his way through one of Mike Myers' cast-off fat suits. Then I saw the box-office returns. As it is, this Journey's End will likely be joining James Kent's very fine 2014 adaptation of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth on that list of recent British war movies whose rejection of triumphalism and refusal to wave flags - coupled, no doubt, to the absence of Harry Styles-level stars - have counted against them: nothing here could be claimed as an advert for the Empire, or a Boris Johnson wet dream. Sherriff wanted us to hunker down in the mud and stench of the trenches, the better to see where nationalism gets us; Dibb - thanks in large part to Kristian Milsted's choice and careful production design, a consolidation of Blackadder Goes Forth's trenchwork - pins us down there, with death and defeat waiting on the other side of the sandbags. No wonder audiences haven't fancied it.

As observed through the lens of Ben Wheatley's regular cinematographer Laurie Rose, this is never an overtly pretty picture, which leaves Journey's End at odds with that prevailing, somewhat flattering strain of post-Downton period cinema. Generically, it may, in fact, lie closer to a horror movie like 2001's The Bunker, establishing its diverse rollcall of personalities - damaged Sam Claflin, avuncular Paul Bettany, fresh-faced Ava Butterfield, pugnacious Stephen Graham - who we're fairly certain won't all come back alive, then showing up the first act's essentially comic concerns (someone's crocuses, pineapple mislabelled as apricots, "yellow soup") as increasingly trivial over the course of the week leading up to the Germans' Spring Offensive. Where Sherriff was working towards a portrait of a generation all but wiped out by the end of 1918, Dibb offers a snapshot of a generation of actors. Unlike the egregious ham-enabling of Darkest Hour, this does feel like an ensemble movie of the old school, setting the wide-eyed rookie Butterfield, rather like the Charlie Sheen character in Platoon, between such dependables as Bettany, Graham and Toby Jones (nicely cast as the droll cook Mason, doing his best with cups of onion tea) and the much-improved Claflin, who's spent the past few years weaning himself off lucrative yet bland hunk roles, and has emerged as a far sturdier presence for it, comprehensively wiping the floor with Tom Sturridge's Hibbert in a manner Sherriff could never have foreseen.

The drama could do with a bit more of his oomph. Entering onto screens that have recently been blasted not just by Dunkirk but Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge, Dibb's film still feels theatrical to some degree, beholden to Sherriff's waiting games and his characters' talk. It is a challenge to make deathly boredom and isolation cinematic, and Journey's End gets only three-quarters of the way there. Once we venture over the top, Dibb is hampered by the kind of budget that doesn't allow for screen-filling carnage (Star Trek-like camera wobbling has to suffice) and his producers' desire for a more commercially appealing certificate; one key death goes unnoticed at the time, and only in the final movement, as a recurring nightmare becomes hellish reality, does the film begin to suggest any real vision of warfare. (Although he's moved squarely into the realms of prestige costume drama - first with the Beeb's adaptation of The Line of Beauty, then 2008's The Duchess and 2014's Suite Française - Dibb has never made anything quite as urgent as his 2004 debut Bullet Boy.) Still, at a moment when he who bellows loudest seems destined to land the commercial and red-carpet spoils, the film's modesty might be considered a virtue: it's a decent, sincere war movie, gathering up tiny, touching, true-seeming scenes and moments as a spooked Tommy might the ammunition he'd spilled while coming under fire. Perhaps it was always doomed, one way or another; you find your sympathies heading its way nevertheless.

Journey's End is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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