Film Review: Journey’s End (2017)

Journey’s End is a stage play written by R.C. Sherrif, and first performed in 1928, ten years after the period in which it was set. An anti-war play, it focuses on a few days around the German offensive in the Spring of 1918, during WW1.

It was first filmed in 1930, starring Colin Clive, but I have never seen that version. However, it was also filmed for television by the BBC in 1988, starring Jeremy Northam in the lead as Captain Stanhope. That remained the definitive version for me, with a superb cast sticking to the spirit of the original play. In this version, some of the action sequences were shown on film, something the play avoided due to theatrical constraints.

Most of what makes the play effective is the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in dugouts and trenches, viewed from the perspective of the officers, and their cooks and servants. The 1988 version deviated from this slightly, but remained powerful and compelling to watch.

So now we have the new version, with Samuel Clafin as Stanhope, Asa Butterfield as the young and impressionable Raleigh, and Paul Bettany excellent as the older experienced lieutenant known to all as ‘Uncle’. Add Toby Jones as the cook, and Stephen Graham as Lieutenant Trotter, and the casting is about as good as it gets these days.

The stresses and strains of trench warfare are all there. Men reaching breaking point, officers living on whisky to get through each day, and senior commanders issuing seemingly pointless orders from comfortable accommodation behind the lines. Social class is maintained in the mud and deprivation, and we have the added complication that Stanhope is the boyfriend of Raleigh’s sister back home, so idolised by the new arrival.

Tension builds as the expected German attack comes ever closer, exacerbated by last-minute orders to attack a German trench to capture a prisoner. We have a cowardly officer unwilling to play his part, and other stiff-upper lip officers pretending all is well, in order to maintain the morale of the men.

As a film, it is beautifully photographed in widescreen; with muted colours suiting the mood, and dingy scenes in the candlelit dugouts nicely done too. It never feels less than completely authentic, not for one moment. If you had never heard of the play, or seen the earlier BBC film, you would no doubt have thought it was a wonderfully moving production. Paul Bettany is quietly outstanding as ‘Uncle’, and young Butterfield looks as if he is actually living in 1918, with his wide-eyed enthusiasm concealing inner fears.

But I have seen the BBC film, and Jeremey Northam is magnificent as Stanhope in that. Tim Spall wipes the floor with Stephen Graham in the role of Trotter, and Edward Petherbridge is even better than Bettany as ‘Uncle’. So my advice is to try to watch the 1988 version. If you can access it, here it is on You Tube. It is not a great print, unfortunately.

But if for some reason you can’t watch this, the new film is still very good indeed.
Here’s a trailer.

Just been watching…(77)

The Winslow Boy (1999)

This is not the only adaptation of the Rattigan play of the same name, but it is by far the best one. That is helped by a superb script from David Mamet, who also directed the film with consummate skill. Then there is the casting, with a breathtaking array of some of the finest British actors on display. Add the wonderful costume, convincing sets, and the compelling original (based on true events) story, and this film is a sheer wonder, from start to finish. I have seen it at least three times, and it is so good, I would happily watch it again next week.

The story itself is simple, but complex in the telling. Set not long before WW1, in 1911, we follow the life of a well-to-do middle class banker and his family, in London. His oldest child, a daughter, is involved with the Suffragettes, and is a ‘modern’ woman, with political opinions, and a feisty attitude. She is engaged to be married to an officer in the Household Cavalry. His older son is at Oxford University, but showing little aptitude for his studies. The youngest son, the Winslow Boy of the title, has just started at the prestigious Naval College, Osbourne, and is the apple of his father’s eye. Just before Christmas, the boy, Ronnie, appears in the garden of the house. He has been expelled from the Naval College, accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order, from another cadet.

When his father believes his story that he is innocent, this starts a chain of events that all but destroy the family, taking them to the brink of bankruptcy, and altering the destinies of both older children irrevocably. Unable to secure satisfaction from the Admiralty, Mr Winslow embarks on the lengthy, and costly, legal process of taking The Crown to court. He hopes to secure a proper trial for his son. Even though it is accepted that he can never return to the Naval College, he is determined to prove Ronnie’s innocence in a public court. To do so, he engages the services of one of the best barristers in Britain, the haughty Sir Robert Morton, who agrees to take on the case. Morton is also a Member of Parliament, and he sees the opportunity to embarrass the government, at the same time as securing the boy’s innocence.

The film shows no courtroom scenes. This in itself is a stroke of genius, as the viewer must chart the progress by the reaction of the family, the journalists, and the general public. This is shown in newspapers, family discussions, and scenes from The House of Commons. As their comfortable lives begin to unravel, the family starts to question the point of the proceedings, and Mrs Winslow is close to despair, following the reduced financial circumstances of her household. If you think this doesn’t sound like much of a film, then I have to tell you that you are very wrong. It is one of the best historical dramas ever committed to the screen, with a cast that is at the top of its game. I think it is the best film ever made, in this particular genre.

Nigel Hawthorne, as the determined Mr Winslow. Flawless.
Jeremy Northam, as the complex Sir Robert. Beyond flawless.
Gemma Jones, as the troubled Mrs Winslow. Flawless
Rebecca Pidgeon, as Catherine, the ‘political’ daughter. Flawless.
All the other cast members. Flawless.
Period feel. Flawless.
Costume. Flawless.
Script. Flawless.

This film definitely deserves a wider audience, and to be better appreciated. Jeremy Northam is one of the finest actors of his generation, given the right part. Gemma Jones was born to act in ‘period’, and Nigel Hawthorne delivers a nuance in his acting that is a joy to behold. Rebecca Pidgeon looks so convincing, you could almost believe that she lived through that period.

As you can tell, I like this one a lot. I can’t get the official trailer, but here’s a scene.