Skip to main content

How many did you expect to make it back?

Journey’s End 
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I can't say I was ever the greatest fan of the play Journey’s End (I wasn't and still am not of the remotest fan of the Doctor Who story of the same title), but not because I didn't recognise the quality of RC Sheriff's piece – even as a whatever-year-old. Rather, it was having to read it and reread it as a set text at school, its unremitting despair and hopelessness – even with the more overtly comic characters, which rather went to underline than relieve – surmounted any positives after a while. I was very glad never to have to set eyes on a copy once exams were over. And then it showed up in Withnail & I (it's the part Marwood has to cut his hair for) and like Withnail, I thought he must have been mad to take the part. But time can be a restorative, and thirty years later, the work's considerable merits are fully in evidence in Saul Dibb's film version.


Curiously, we were never shown James Whale's 1930 adaptation (Whale got his big break directing it on stage, with a fresh-faced Laurence Olivier as Stanhope), although I was familiar with the aeronautically transposed Aces High. Simon Reade's screenplay, as is the habit of adaptations from the stage, expands the action from the confines of the officers' dugout. We're escorted through the trenches, visit HQ and experience the crucial raid; we're even left in no doubt as to the aftermath of the German attack at the conclusion. 


Reade utilised Sheriff's novelisation, written with Vernon Bartlett, although it's been suggested this was largely Bartlett's effort, much of the opening part concerning the school experiences of Stanhope and Raleigh before a more perfunctory rehashing of the play once the WWI section is reached. As such, Dibb has shot an introductory section before C Company returns to the frontline and includes a scene where Raleigh asks his uncle to post him to Stanhope's company. Also notable is access to the cook's quarters and staff (Toby Jones as Private Mason overseeing the grub), and in an effort to muddy up the palate, additional swearing in passing from the men in the trenches (while not out of place per se, this still seems gratuitous). 


Dibb ensures these expansions don't impact the claustrophobic intensity of the material. Indeed, when it comes to the raid, he resists the urge to provide an overview – although that may as much have been a budgetary decision – following the men at foot level and then at a crawl, emphasising the confusion rather than the clarity. Commendable too that he didn't take the opportunity to depict Osbourne's death, even if we see the scenario leading to it. I was less sure about the need to feature Raleigh's sister receiving his letter at the end, and whether the motive was to illustrate how false impressions of the reality of war get passed on, or simply a get-out in not having the downer of absolutely everyone dead come the credits (in which case, it’s rather desperate and doesn't work). 


The producer threw about big names like Cumberbatch, Hiddleston and Redmayne as ideal casting, but Dibbs' choices are perfect. Superlatives abound for Paul Bettany's kindly, reflective Lieutenant "Uncle" Osborne, fiercely loyal to his alcoholic captain while attempting to show the fresh-faced and naively eager Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) the ropes. Witness the scene where Osborne tries to keep Raleigh's mind off the imminent the raid; Bettany imbues a palpable sense of a man keeping a lid on his own fear in order to lead by example. When he's gone you entirely miss his presence in a way I don't recall the play quite achieving, and that has to be put down to the actor.


Sam Claflin is also exactly what you'd hope for from a Captain Stanhope, combustible and raw, treating wide-eyed Butterfield contemptibly but also understandably; his desire to do right by his men is best illustrated by his summons to a meal with Robert Glenister's colonel, where he can barely disguise his disgust at their remoteness and detachment. I've never been too sure of Butterfield previously, certainly as lead where he usually seems rather ineffectual; that quality makes him perfect casting here; you feel for the character, hopelessly out of his depth at every turn. 


Stephen Graham's Second Lieutenant Trotter is less comic relief, such that Stanhope seems all the more the arse for laying into him; he still likes his food – Sheriff calling the character Trotter wasn't the subtlest cue – but Graham affords him more perceptiveness than you might expect ("It must be nice to be you, Trotter. You never get sick of anything" says Stanhope dismissively at one point; "If only you knew" he replies under his breath). Then there's Tom Sturridge as "bloody little funk" Second Lieutenant Hibbert, whose malaises are a major bone of contention for Stanhope; Sturridge is good, but I recall Hibbert casting a more pervasive blight on the play than he does here, and I wondered if there shouldn't have been an edge to the scene where Stanhope talks him down and says he feels exactly the same way (certainly given the later drunken fracas between them).


The best compliment you can pay Dibb and Reade is that they ensure the power of the play remains intact, one that encapsulates the futility and horror of war without diverting into invective. Journey's End is as impactful as ever, and since it appears that it's still taught at GCSE, this film version will doubtless become an essential instructive tool, and dare I say standard crib (as long as the kids don't make the mistake of assuming it hasn't been embellished).


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Trouble’s part of the circus. They said Barnum was in trouble when he lost Tom Thumb.

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
(SPOILERS) Anyone of a mind that it’s a recent development for the Oscars to cynically crown underserving recipients should take a good look at this Best Picture winner from the 25thAcademy Awards. In this case, it’s generally reckoned that the Academy felt it was about time to honour Hollywood behemoth Cecil B DeMille, by that point into his seventies and unlikely to be jostling for garlands much longer, before it was too late. Of course, he then only went and made a bona fide best picture contender, The Ten Commandments, and only then pegged it. Because no, The Greatest Show on Earth really isn’t very good.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

What lit the fire that set off our Mr Reaper?

Death Wish (2018)
(SPOILERS) I haven’t seen the original Death Wish, the odd clip aside, and I don’t especially plan to remedy that, owing to an aversion to Charles Bronson when he isn’t in Once Upon a Time in the West and an aversion to Michael Winner when he wasn’t making ‘60s comedies or Peter Ustinov Hercule Poirots. I also have an aversion to Eli Roth, though (this is the first of his oeuvre I’ve seen, again the odd clip aside, as I have a general distaste for his oeuvre), and mildly to Bruce when he’s on autopilot (most of the last twenty years), so really, I probably shouldn’t have checked this one out. It was duly slated as a fascistic, right-wing rallying cry, even though the same slaters consider such behaviour mostly okay if the protagonist is super-powered and wearing a mask when taking justice into his (or her) own hands, but the truth is this remake is a quite serviceable, occasionally amusing little revenger, one that even has sufficient courage in its skewed convictions …

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Monster? We’re British, you know.

Horror Express (1972)
(SPOILERS) This berserk Spanish/British horror boasts Hammer titans Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (both as good guys!) to its name, and cloaked in period trappings (it’s set in 1906), suggests a fairly standard supernatural horror, one with crazy priests and satanic beasts. But, with an alien life form aboard the Trans-Siberian Express bound for Moscow, Horror Express finishes up more akin to The Cassandra Crossing meets The Thing.

Countess Petrovski: The czar will hear of this. I’ll have you sent to Siberia. Captain Kazan: I am in Siberia!
Christopher Lee’s Alexander Saxton, anthropologist and professor of the Royal Geological Society, has retrieved a frozen corpse from Manchuria. Believing it might be the Missing Link he crates it up to transport home via the titular train. Other passengers include his colleague and rival Dr Wells (Cushing), an international spy, and an antic monk called Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza, strikingly lunatic), who for some rea…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

You had to grab every single dollar you could get your hands on, didn't you?

Triple Frontier (2019)
(SPOILERS) Triple Frontier must have seemed like a no-brainer for Netflix, even by their standards of indiscriminately greenlighting projects whenever anyone who can’t get a job at a proper studio asks. It had, after all, been a hot property – nearly a decade ago now – with Kathryn Bigelow attached as director (she retains a producing credit) and subsequently JC Chandor, who has seen it through to completion. Netflix may not have attracted quite the same level of prospective stars – Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, Tom Hardy and Channing Tatum were all involved at various points – but as ever, they haven’t stinted on the production. To what end, though? Well, Bigelow’s involvement is a reliable indicator; this is a movie about very male men doing very masculine things and suffering stoically for it.