For the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war, here’s an excellent and unpretentious remake of the classic 1928 rc sherriff stage play, adapted by simon reade and directed by saul dibb. it’s expertly cast and very well acted: frank, powerful, sincere. the dramatic action opens up, always conveying the essential and crippling claustrophobia of this tragic ordeal. Cinematographer Laurie Rose’s coolly observant and dynamic camerawork helps drive the dramatic momentum, and Hildur Guðnadóttir and Natalie Holt’s sinuous musical score creates a growing sense of horror and dread.
asa butterfield stars as young second lieutenant raleigh, fresh from the front lines in 1918. in all his moon-faced naivety, he asks to join c company in the trenches, because the commanding officer there is captain stanhope (sam claflin), who was a few years ahead of raleigh in school, and a family friend. the naive innocence of his radiantly casual demeanor, so imminently ruined, is made all the more ironic by nepotism.
raleigh doesn’t use her connections to avoid combat, but to be in the middle of it; her uncle is a high-ranking officer who is hurt by raleigh’s tactless request, but in the end asks him offhandedly how her father’s crocuses are doing. hearing bad news on this point, she shrugs and says that he is planting them at the wrong depth. it’s a quietly horrible vignette of innocence: an Edenic world where the health of crocuses is something to worry about.
the encounter of raleigh and stanhope is a silent cymbal crash of horror. To Raleigh’s dismay, Stanhope is not the boy she knew. the war has turned him into a self-loathing, worried, aggressive alcoholic who is horrified to see the young raleigh and realize how he must look in the eyes of someone who once liked and adored him as a hero. the very juxtaposition of him is an obscene insertion of the arcadia of his previous innocent civilian life into this cauldron of hell and despair. And what makes it even more painful is that Stanhope has an unofficial understanding with Raleigh’s sister, back home and poignantly awaiting letters. Stanhope realizes, unlike the young man, that he is likely to break this young woman’s heart by dying or returning home as an angry, loveless specter. Each is a kind of grotesque mirror for the other because Raleigh, perhaps without fully realizing it, can see in Stanhope what he will become. In the quiet intelligence of his performances, Butterfield and Claflin convey all of this.
paul bettany is excellent as the sadly smiling lieutenant osborne, the pipe-smoking former school teacher whose nickname “uncle” clearly conveys his fatherly wisdom, while also underlining the overall tragic lack of anything like a father or someone who I can love these soldiers, most of them nothing more than children. Stephen Graham is the gruff and capable Second Lieutenant Trotter; miles jupp has a revealing cameo as the dry and cynical captain hardy and toby jones is the funny cook, mason, apologizing for having to replace canned pineapples with canned apricots, or serving “onion” tea.
The film interestingly shows how difficult meals are for officers in the dock. these are occasions when the strict formality of rank is theoretically relaxed, but, in fact, eating and drinking are a new source of tension. food and drink is all they have to obsess over: the closest thing they have to indulgence, or just feeling like human beings. whiskey is the drug everyone craves, and this luxury is the most fundamental need of all.
Their horrific situation of boredom and nerve wracking tension suddenly becomes even more indescribable when the order comes that Osborne and Raleigh are to lead a raiding party, in broad daylight, into the enemy lines to capture to a German soldier for intelligence purposes. what is eerily clear is that the raid was planned during the day for no other reason than to complete it for the debriefing that will precede the formal dinner. more incredibly, it is to go ahead without any fictional race, or dress rehearsal with some British squadron acting like the German one so that this mistreatment can be practised. they are simply expected to do so. the aftermath of this hair-raising adventure brings all of his despair into even sharper focus.
The First World War is one of the oldest and darkest stories of futility and carnage of the 20th century. dibb and the excellent cast of him put new passion into it.