What it's about: Captain Stanhope leads a group of soldiers at the front lines in the trenches during World War I. Because tactical battle has ground the major conflicts to a standstill, groups of soldiers are cycling in for six day shifts. Even without much battle, the tours are long, grueling affairs against the elements and fear of battle. A young man named Raleigh, who idolized upperclassmen Stanhope while in school, enters the war and requests to join his old friend. But Raleigh hasn't realized that Stanhope has been completely changed by his war experience, no longer the upstart young man who shared time with his family. In these extreme circumstances, their relationship is tested and changes under the cover of war.
Journey's End is a war film that isn't exactly about battle -- rather, the long and excruciating waiting for battle. It captures the spirit of World War I, the muck, the standstill, the never-ending feeling, quite well. It takes place over the course of six days, but feels like an eternity through the characters.
The state of the war is completely boiled down early on by the company's marching song repeating "We're here because we're here because we're here," etc. to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." It perfectly captures the hopelessness of their situation.
When there is battle action [the first sequence comes in over an hour into the film], it is unspectacular, shot mostly in close up with a shaking camera. I'm guessing this is due to a relatively small budget, but Journey's End should be appreciated for sticking to its narrative strengths.
Much of the film is basically a chamber piece taking place in the captains' quarters where Stanhope gets drunk and angry and sad. There are times where it is more Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than it is Saving Private Ryan. There is a lot of fighting over the awful quality of their food.
The film's structure of introducing Raleigh into Stanhope's company gives a sharp look at how endless war can change a man irrevocably. Because Journey's End takes place in a short and specific amount of time, pre-war Stanhope is never shown, only talked about. He can be pictured, though, through the eyes of Raleigh, who hasn't lost the hope or love for his former friend. The film smartly delays their meeting, letting Raleigh's optimism live on long enough to be devastated by who he finds.
The three years age difference between Stanhope and Raleigh is a little deceiving as actors Sam Claflin and Asa Butterfield are almost ten years apart. It emphasizes the effect to an extreme degree, which is what Journey's End is ultimately trying to do, so it works fine. Personally, too, I've not yet put Claflin out of the YA actor stable, so I wouldn't have guessed the was already beyond 30.
Claflin gives a really good and centered performance with the opportunity outside of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Hunger Games story. He is properly beaten down, living on a fine edge of depression and insanity. He's also appropriately rugged, believably able to lead a group of men into battle.
Paul Bettany plays Osborne, the old man of the company, second in command to Stanhope and the captain's confidant -- consider Bettany is now able to be the "old man" is a little strange, but we're all getting older. He's the film's only spot of comic relief -- granted in a very serious, droll, British sort of way. Strangely, he's also a big part of the story's heart, with one of the most defined characters arcs and tragic figures.
Journey's End is an incredibly measured and austere exploration of war's effect on young men. Thematically, this isn't new ground. From a stylistic standpoint, the film doesn't capture a new look at warfare, either.. And so, Journey's End might not be an essential World War I film. It is, however, wonderfully crafted and almost delicate in its character study. There is a real and honest emotional core here and if you don't mind a very dower time, it is worth seeking out.