Starring: Sam Claflin, Paul Bettany, Asa Butterfield, Stephen Graham, Toby Jones, Tom Sturridge, Robert Glenister
Director: Saul Dibb
Running time: 107 mins
BBFC Certificate: 12A
In 2014 the 100th anniversary of WWI began, and since then we’ve had a plethora of films, documentaries, tributes and dramas about the Great War. Most have been excellent, some middling, but it’s an exhaustive list, and some would say exhausting. However, this version of RC Sherriff’s play deserves to be seen, tired as you may be with war films. It’s released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1918 spring offensive, and is a noble addition to the list of films dealing with the great conflict.
It’s a version of Sherriff’s play that sticks to the script – for the most part. There are some added four-letter words which he never wrote, and which add little to the power of the piece. Meanwhile some lines about cricket, Alice in Wonderland and drinking have been cut. However it conveys, like the play and the fine 1988 TV film, the regimen of the men on the front, the nervousness, the routine, sometimes the boredom, and certainly the sheer terror of being in a trench 60 yards away from the German fortifications – “the width of a rugby field”.
Asa Butterfield is Raleigh, a terribly young captain on his first trip to the Western Front, who asks to be placed under the care of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), who he was at school with and who was dating his sister. Stanhope, once a hero of the school and all-round decent chap, is, however, much changed. Three years of the war has shot his nerves to pieces, and he numbs his pain with whiskey. He is tough on his troops, his cook (Toby Jones), fellow captain Hibbert (Tom Strurridge) but most of all on himself.
Osborne (Paul Bettany) is the decent captain, trying to keep up morale with kindness, and keeping himself sane by reading Alice in Wonderland – probably the maddest book ever written. Stephen Graham is Trotter, played by the great Timothy Spall in the 1988 version; solid, dependable and stoic, who keeps himself going by constantly thinking about food and drink.
These men play out a tense drama over four long days in which they try and stay positive, but know deep down that their fate may already have been written. In one amazing scene Osborne and Raleigh have to go over the top at 5pm, and sit staring at a watch trying to think of a distraction. Six minutes has never felt so long.
What is really underneath this piece is how men can be incredibly brave in very different ways. A simple word of kindness, a joke, a pat on the back are all used to simply convey the sheer terror they all feel but dare not express. Hibbert tells his battalion he must leave with neuralgia behind the eye, Stanhope believes it’s simply cowardice, and the pair face off in a fierce row which ultimately ends in a sort of truce.
Claflin is very good as the strung out Stanhope, his youth and vitality long gone, reduced to a wild-eyed wreck of a man, constantly shouting at his colleagues and reeking of the whisky he needs to keep himself from actually facing up to his predicament. However, the 1988 version had Jeremy Northam in the same role, whose twitchiness and rage perhaps supersedes Claflin’s.
Occasionally it does threaten to tip into Blackadder Goes Forth territory. When chef Jones tells Stanhope his tea may contain the remnants of onion soup and declared “two cups of oniony-tea coming right up sir” it’s difficult not to think of Baldrick. Similarly, Robert Glenister’s buffoon of a colonel recalls Steven Fry’s wild-eyed shouting.
However, this is a finely-staged version of Sherriff’s fine play, which holds its cards close to its chest until the terrible battle at the end. It looks mighty impressive, almost devoid of colour except for the brown mud which seems to cover everything, and the use of sound is particularly brilliant – try and see it in a cinema with big speakers if you can, the ground literally shakes when those German shells start falling.
Overall Verdict: Fine, gripping, tense WWI story with excellent performances.
Reviewer: Mike Martin