The new Journey’s End movie, which was given the red carpet treatment last night at the Odeon Leicester Square is a tense, gripping and ultimately rather harrowing movie, conveying brilliantly the agonies of awaiting an impending enemy attack. The performances are almost uniformly excellent and the hyper-realism of the cinematography embeds us with the unfortunate soldiers in their few yards of dirt and mud. But this is not your (grand) father’s Journey’s End: scriptwriter Simon Reade used not only the play as his source material, but also the novelisation written by Sherriff and (largely) Vernon Bartlett in 1930, and he and Director Saul Dibb were obviously keen to open the play out from its normal stage confines. As a result some scenes have been added, and a number of scenes from the play truncated, so Journey’s End afficionadoes would do well to leave their preconceptions behind.
The film opens with a nice touch – Uncle (superbly played by Paul Bettany) reading Alice in Wonderland (although, unlike in the play, he will not quote from it later). As the camera pulls back we see the Company preparing to leave for the front line, with Hibbert manhandling a waitress in the estaminet, and Uncle trying to smooth things over (a scene taken from the novelisation). The last man to leave the building is Stanhope, who quickly glugs a glass of whisky before joining his men and leading them off. As we approach the line the main musical theme of the movie begins to take shape – the mournful tones of strings foreshadowing some terrible events to come. Our feelings of unease are matched by those of ‘C’ Company as it sees the soldiers of the Regiment it is relieving departing the line with large quantities of supplies, which they (bafflingly) appear to be trying to protect from an imminent German attack, rather than further shoring up their defences.
At this point we reach the beginning of the play, with the exchange between Hardy (Miles Jupp) and Uncle. In the spirit of opening out, much of the exchange takes place in the trench, rather than the dugout, which means we miss out on the first view of Hardy drying a sock over a candle (as Sherriff’s ex-comrade Lt Douglass had been doing when they first met), and also on Hardy’s intrepid earwig. The exchange between the two is briefer and angrier than in the play, revealing a much harder Uncle, and highlighting the likely forthcoming attack. Having only seen the film once, it is difficult to be sure, but the impending attack appears to dominate the movie much more than it does the play. That undoubtedly heightens the tension, but possibly at the expense of some of the humour and character exploration in the play. (Laurence Olivier, the original Stanhope, once observed that the play was ‘all meals’: the movie is not). Trotter, especially, seems rather hard done-to, although Stephen Graham does a fine job of converting him from comic cockney to flinty scouser.
As the Company is settling into its new quarters we cut to Raleigh, newly arrived from England and asking his uncle (the General) to post him in Stanhope’s Company (another scene from the novelisation). Asa Butterfield does a wonderful job of modernising Raleigh, losing some of the up-boys-and-at-’em tone which worked better in the 1920s than it does today. The other character who has been modernised is Mason the cook who features largely as comic relief in the play, but is here credited with an appreciation of his situation and of the dynamics of his officers’ interactions. Toby Jones delivered the comedy expertly (judging by the laughter in the audience), but also hinted at the depths of Mason’s understanding. Raleigh and Mason are both broadly parodied in Blackadder Goes Forth, and Reade and Dibb have done a great job (I presume intentionally) in avoiding that fate in the film. While on the subject of Mason, one additional scene is well worth commending: after Mason’s assistant is sent off to another Company to obtain a ‘screw of pepper’, we watch him in the trench having to navigate a section which has been blown in and where he has to run the risk of sniper fire, capturing simply and effectively the dangers which even the simplest of chores entailed.
Of course the play stands and falls on the portrayal of Stanhope, and Sam Claflin is immense throughout – from that very first glug, through all the many subsequent glugs (and there are many!) I had worried in advance that modern Stanhopes might be too soft and understanding, but he is commendably brusque and vicious, as befits a man toiling under intolerable strain. His dependence on Uncle, and his distress when he is killed in the raid, is conveyed much more forcefully than I remember seeing it before. His bitterness at the senior officers for ordering the raid is also amplified, especially with an additional scene (which takes place off-stage in the play) in which he dines with the Colonel. Despite Claflin’s brilliance, and Butterfield’s innocence, I have to confess I found Raleigh’s final death unmoving. That may be because I knew it was coming (my wife, who has never seen the play, found it very moving); but I wonder, too, if it was because we first spend a couple of minutes with the Company (and Stanhope) in the trench as it’s battered by the Germans’ ear-splitting barrage.
The focus on the forthcoming attack (which is perfectly reasonable – recall that Sheriff originally contemplated calling the play ‘Waiting‘) sucks some of the oxygen from the other two main plots – Raleigh’s hero-worship and Hibbert’s cowardice. The former still comes through to some extent, but Tom Sturridge, as Hibbert, seems rather short-changed. His cowardice is raised briefly in conversation between Osborne and Stanhope, but the big confrontation scene seems reduced.
The one scene in the play which invites the Director to open it out from the stage is the raid on the German trench. There is an important pre-amble scene – almost a microcosm of the play itself – in which Osborne chats to Raleigh about anything and everything to take his mind off the terrible event to come. It is beautifully done, but what comes after is even better, as we see them emerge into the trench, and slither up the sap, waiting for the smoke bombs to go off to announce the beginning of the raid. Watching them and their men, lying, shaking (puking) in the mud, it seems to take an age before they are launched into No Man’s Land. The action thereafter was rapid, noisy and chaotic: although I have seen it criticised, I felt it worked well. It was also commendably gore-free (a compliment, by the way, which was also bestowed on Sherriff’s original when it first appeared).
Journey’s End the movie is not Journey’s End the play, but it’s none the worse for that. While there were some scenes I could have done without (I’m still not sure why we ended with Raleigh’s sister – named Margaret here, rather than Madge – reading his letter), and aspects of the play I wish had been punched up rather more, the film is still a nerve-shredding couple of hours, from which I, at any rate, emerged wishing that Stanhope had left some whisky behind.