Trenchant warfare

He’s actually not considering abandoning his post—the sun’s just hurting his eyes.

He’s actually not considering abandoning his post—the sun’s just hurting his eyes.

Rated 3.0

Director Saul Dibb’s Journey’s End resurrects R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play about life in the trenches of World War I. The play is virtually forgotten now outside of English lit or theater history classes; Dibb’s movie makes a strong argument that the play’s obscurity is unjustified.

Not that the movie is stagey or theatrical; on the contrary, Dibb and scriptwriter Simon Reade, along with a uniformly superb cast, transfer the play to the screen resolutely and completely, even to a fault.

We first meet 2nd Lt. Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), a boyish, naïve young officer making his first tour at the Western Front. Through family connections, he’s able to get himself assigned to the company of Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin), an old chum three years ahead of him at school, who was courting Raleigh’s sister Madge before going off to do his bit.

Arriving at the front, Raleigh meets Lt. Osborne (Paul Bettany), a schoolmaster in civilian life whom the other officers call “Uncle”—Osborne is in his 30s, while the others are in their 20s or younger.

Osborne warns Raleigh that he’ll find Stanhope changed, and Raleigh does. Stanhope is not pleased by him and gets angry when Raleigh addresses him by his first name. The grinding stresses of the war, and of sending men to inevitable and futile death, have driven Stanhope to drink; he’s never sober, yet he never shirks his duty. The British pronunciation of his name is something like “Stannup,” and it’s impossible not to hear “stand-up” in that. Stanhope is a stand-up guy, no error, but the effort of standing up, even when he’s drunk, only makes him drink more.

Barely managing to function in this vicious cycle, Stanhope reacts with anger at the intrusion of Raleigh into it; Raleigh is a relic from another life, one he must forget if he’s to cope with the life he has now. Worse, he fears that Raleigh will write to Madge and tell her what he’s become.

Stanhope need hardly fear; Raleigh sees only that his old friend Dennis is an officer loved by his men and dealing manfully with almost unimaginable pressure. Like the British public at large (an analogy that R.C. Sherrif surely intended), Raleigh’s naïvete about the war dies hard.

But die it does, not only in the mud, lice and bad food of the trench dugouts, but in two chaotic and harrowing combat scenes that open up the action of Sherrif’s play.

Dibb’s hyper-realism at times becomes a liability. The intense-whisper school of acting makes sense for once, in a setting where characters fear being overheard by other soldiers or the enemy, but it means that the hearing-impaired, or those who have trouble with regional British accents, might want to wait for the subtitled DVD. And the nightmarish confusion of the combat scenes fails to convey that major characters have been killed; we don’t know until later, when we notice with shock that they’re no longer there.

Then again, maybe that was the point.