War epics more often than not revolve around the key or decisive battles, the grand, sweeping calls to arms or the impact, whatever it may be, of victory and defeat. Not this one.
Centred on a few soldiers and mates of varied ranks serving on the Western Front, a group of British servicemen await their impending fates and an end to the war. Commencing with Asa Butterfield’s Second Lieutenant Raleigh, a new arrival amidst the tried and war-wearied, at least at the outset this film looks as if it is very much going to be about him.
It is, in part, though the focus soon shifts, and then again, and at then at least once more to Sam Clafin’s embattled Captain Stanhope and more broadly how the events of war, large and small, impact even the most stoic. To be sure there are several who make up a strong cast, among them Paul Bettany, Toby Jones and Tom Sturridge, all excellent, though neither they nor their other counterparts, including Stephen Graham as Second Lieutenant Trotter, feature nearly so prominently story-wise as Raleigh or Stanhope.
With the film’s lynch-pin ever-shifting in what, absent a significant focus on minor characters, cannot be properly termed an ensemble flick, we never get to know either character as well as we would like, nor do we Jones’ private who in a few short scenes imparts much of the dour helplessness that evidently pervades the despair of so many figures whom we passingly encounter. With the central role and focus uncommonly changing hands throughout the film, Butterfield’s additions while not uncompelling may as well have been relegated as with those of so many other characters to a more minor role for this is far and above Clafin’s picture.
Deftly humanising an outwardly uncompromising, severe figure with his upper lip stiffened to his face, Clafin’s scenes of struggle as he failingly attempts come to terms with years of bloody, violent torment are a sight to behold in what is probably a career high. Engrossing sequences where he berates a friend or fellow Soldier in the trenches or otherwise experiences his own emotional upheavals in the confidence of those closest are matched only by a fixating, powerful early sequence where Clafin’s Stanhope visualises the fiery horrors awaiting him only a few metres away.
We could just as well have been treated to more of his Captain, with back-story but fleetingly mentioned and deconstructions of his relationships with other key characters variedly left to a great deal of speculation. One of no doubt more notable performances to come, the less-considered dynamic between the main figures distracted little from a few stellar turns well worth the price of admission.
Journey’s End screened at the Veterans Film Festival, The British Film Festival and will be in cinemas from November 8. Sam Clafin won the Veterans Film Festival Red Poppy Award for Best Actor for his role in Journey’s End