When the silence ends on the western front

When the silence ends on the western front Sam Claflin stars in Journey's End
Journey’s End (12A)

 

They wait. They joke about soup. They snap off one another. Days pass. The spring offensive looms…

We’re in France in March 1918, the last year of World War I. The ‘Boche’ still has some fight left in him and is about to descend on a group of British soldiers in a trench in Aisne.

A young recruit joins them. He doesn’t look as if he’s too long out of school. He’s done some service and is anxious to do more.

He’s introduced to an officer who’s engaged to be married to his sister. He joined the regiment to meet him.

The man isn’t friendly to him. He has a drink problem. Is this the reason? Or is it because he knows they’re all going to die?

It’s one of the conundrums of ‘the last gentleman’s war’ – it was anything but – that so many people were lined up like nine pins for ‘Jerry’ to mow them down so easily in March 1918.

To get their minds off the inevitability of their impending doom they banter with one another. They talk about anything except the war. They whistle in the graveyard. And, yes, they joke about soup.

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Based on a play written by R.C. Sherriff in 1928, this is an incredibly powerful film. It’s so relentlessly claustrophobic that when battle finally breaks out you’re almost relieved. As they are. The wait is over. Now all that remains is to do or die. Theirs not to reason why.

For the young soldier –Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) – it’s a baptism of fire, a trip into the valley of death. Journey’s end.

This isn’t the ‘jolly good show, old chap’ Britain we’re used to. The fear is so great you can almost taste it, all the more so for being sublimated.

All of the cast are great. I have to mention Paul Bettany as Uncle but it’s Sam Claflin’s film. He’s the fiancé of Raleigh’s sister. He imbues every scene with such varied expressions you never know what he’s going to say or do from one moment to the next. He’s as confusing to himself as he is to us. This is a man literally falling apart at the seams but still barking out orders at people.

In a Q&A session after the press show of the film, its director Saul Dibb, a very affable and unassuming young man, said: “This isn’t just a film about war. It’s a film about people at war with themselves.”

A good observation. It reminded me of a 1961 feature with Laurence Harvey called The Long and the Short and the Tall. Soldiers shouted at each other a lot in that too but this is much more atmospheric. The attention to detail is astounding.

At times it’s too painful to watch. And I don’t just mean the bloodletting. You can’t fail to be moved by the subtle, sensitive, soul-searching. See it.

Excellent *****

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