Film Review: Journey’s End

The Etiquette of Murder

Sitting down to write this review, there’s local elections happening across the UK today. It’s a beautiful sunny morning, cotton field clouds, a gentle caress temperature, and every so often strolling back from the voting booths, a light pinch breeze spritzing invigoration across your very being. This year said booths were in a local church, so it felt strangely like going to confessional as a teenager and 100% atheist back home in Ireland.

Despite my profound disbelief in an invisible magician living in the sky (not David Blaine, the other one), I’ve always been fascinated by His followers abilities to dress up and Liking His social posts that they themselves manufactured, presented with thousands of years of expertise in manipulating the masses, in Masses.

That preface may not seem directly relatable to the extremely excellent new film ‘Journey’s End’ (2017) by BAFTA Award nominee Saul Dibb, but I saw many parallels in the manipulation of the populace by the establishment which is at the crux of the movie. In Ireland we had the Catholic Church, and in Great Britain there was (and still is) the class establishment. Both entities were not only masters of the oppressive, suppressive message, but they were by design the resulting masters.

Irrespective of the desired outcomes of these establishments, the techniques were the same, where pomp, grandeur and tales were used to define the barometers of how the rest of us serfs should live our lives to their benefit. We would be subjected to these from birth not only by the world at large, but also the ingrained conditioning of our parents, and their parents before them. They unwittingly became the servile propagandists to maintain the pretence and the present, ie the status quo, everyone knew their place, and for the working class, it was being food for rats or cannon fodder in the trenches of war.

‘Journey’s End’ originally written in 1928 by playwright R. C. Sherriff is what happens when the vacuity and lies of the establishment message is stripped raw. When the ability for individual thought and reality bursts through the incense smoke and jingoistic mirrors, but the conditioning prevails. Written in the aftermath of World War I, it is a cutting critique of the folly and cruelty of the men in charge who effectively sacrifice millions of ordinary people, bodies strung like bunting at the alter of pageantry, all the while their main concern being they themselves are home in time for evening supper.

I was completely unaware of it’s origin background in theatre nor it being part of the curriculum in UK schools, and as the incredible performances roll out in ever increasing oppressive claustrophobic situations, indeed it felt like a stunning and intense stage performance, swiftly closing the distance between you, your safety, sanity and the trenches.

Skilfully beginning with the apparent genial civility of a breakfast in a cottage farm kitchen in France, then drifting to the next course, presented in rat infested frontline trenches a few miles away, as British troops dutifully line up to die in squalor for the comforts of their King, kippers and courtiers. Such is the distinction of class throughout that the entire standing of everyone’s rank is defined by their societal standing back home in Blighty. Save for the exception of Trotter (the always fantastic Stephen Graham), a working class man who has served for years and earned his rank through graft, toil and knowing his place.

Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) reigns unsupremely, clearly, understandably suffering from battle stress disorder, and self medicating in the only (socially accepted) way he knows how, with alcohol. It’s the only rational response to this perpetual carnage and incessant suffocation of imminent death, constantly water boarding them with madness, and to varying degrees they all are being slowly drowned with insanity. In this barrage of stupidity, pleasantries and social convention are the last gasp of air.

The common flesh searing thread that cuts through the havoc and darkly prolongs the dark farce is that use of the language of civility and etiquette, that has no right to be part of this butchery. It’s like wrapping slaughtered blood soaked limbs in the finest of silk, the silk that the Emperor isn’t wearing and nobody is saying it. The contrast becomes ever more intense as the idiocy escalates via the orders of ‘better’, and it makes for cruel watching for anyone who has even a modicum of human empathy.

Beautifully written by Simon Reade, there is an incredible cast all round including Osborne (Paul Bettany) as the ‘Uncle’ figure who brings a sense of calm to frenzy, yet despite his scholarly background still follows the societal madness from above. Bringing in the hoodwinked and brainwashed excitement of serving your country is Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who is the newest Bambiesque recruit who specifically asked to serve under Stanhope on the frontline, who is in a relationship with his sister and he knows him from school. He arrives all doe-eyed and full of vim, fuelled by the apparent heroics of Stanhope, tales of which are clearly part of the propaganda machine.

The extremely high standards of the writing and acting are matched all round with the score and cinematography, in a way it feels like mass murder shouldn’t be presented with such craft, but if anything craft and creation is what we should all be aiming for, enhancing our lives, not ending them and the message is a pure one.

War should never be praised, nor celebrated, it’s a monstrous and catastrophic indication of everything that has failed, when emotional intelligent is the first victim, empathy and humanity hooded and shot soon after. Even though it was written many decades ago, it’s still holds huge potency for our troubled, hostile, intolerant and jingoistic times, as such it can’t be recommended enough, as sometimes to see what one has, you have to see how much others are willing to destroy it in the name of grandeur.

9/10 ‘Journey’s End’ is out on digital 1 June, and Blu-ray/DVD 4 June.
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