Saul Dibb, working with a script by Simon Reade, gracefully translates the optimism and excruciating suffering portrayed in “Journey’s End” to the screen, enlisting a cast of fine actors to embody varying permutations of trauma, denial and the shaded fundamentals of brute survival. As in many war narratives, the audience’s guide in this one is a young, wide-eyed recruit named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), who has pulled strings so that he can join a company in France led by an old school chum named Stanhope (Sam Claflin). When Raleigh arrives, he is greeted by the muck and metastasizing hopelessness of the trench, where interminable boredom is punctuated only by cigarettes, cups of tea and moments of stark terror. Here, he finds his old friend “Stanno” dealing with the pressure by drinking heavily and cruelly lashing out. Raleigh finds a far calmer mediating presence in Osborne, a gentle, impeccably mannered gentleman, magnificently portrayed by Paul Bettany, who personifies with quiet self-restraint the concept of courage as unwavering grace under pressure.
Years before Stanley Kubrick directed “Paths of Glory,” in which he condemned an arrogant and unfeeling military hierarchy that reduced soldiers to so much cannon fodder, Sherriff laid bare those hypocrisies in “Journey’s End,” as generals dine on fine wine and fish while blithely dispatching hundreds of noble young men to sure death. An “Upstairs/Downstairs” class critique pervades this production, in which a lowly private and camp cook named Mason, inhabited with watchful empathy by Toby Jones, eavesdrops on the arguments and confessions of his superiors with Shakespearean discretion.
Time is perhaps the most important character in “Journey’s End,” which is structured around a six-day hitch in northern France, but hinges on a particularly thorny mission whose outcome is no less devastating for its being utterly predictable. Masterfully calibrated by Dibb and his thoroughly able ensemble, the emotional toll brought on by competing forces of dread, hope, decency and crushing fatalism becomes keenly palpable. Through the skillful offices of production designer Kristian Milsted and cinematographer Laurie Rose, the walls close in, simultaneously keeping the men safe, and entombing them forever, whether they live or die. Its poetic title notwithstanding, “Journey’s End” suggests that, flowery invocations of glory, brotherhood and bravery aside, every foxhole is its own kind of grave.
R. A area theaters. Contains some coarse language and war images. 107 minutes.