Never shying away from the mud and blood of World War I, this British feature is moving and tense and like the soldiers, is committed to the last in showing this.
Set over a period of four days in March 1918, we follow young lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) into the front trenches. He wants to be here because he knows the captain from back in Blighty, though Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is a different man thanks to the war. There’s been a long stalemate and as Stanhope’s men are tasked with holding the line, any day now seems likely for German soldiers to make their advance.
Based on a play from 1928 by R.C. Sheriff, this drama is incredibly effective and at times almost emotional as we see the horrors and futility of war take hold. There are a lot of different characters and Simon Reade; who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation has ensured that they don’t become overblown stereotypes. Throughout this film there is a definite sense of crushing hopelessness, this works so well in highlighting how pointless actions of these men are and just how grim their situation is.
Saul Dibb directs in a manner that truly throws the audience in amongst the ticking tension. There are plenty of tight frames and close ups of characters that give nearly the entire movie a claustrophobic wash of unease. Seeing these group of soldiers facing a horrifying possibility of death never really lets up, like some slower patriotic movies may have done. It hits home how devastating their plight is and the bitingly cold scenery of their sunken home for that time can be felt through the screen, as if the director is immersing us alongside these men. A camera movement following them through the sodden mud is a great example of how bleak and involving the film can be.
I would say that its only weakness lays in a raid scene, that builds up fantastically but once it hits the editing becomes too frenzied. I know in one way this works to show how maddening and scarily chaotic this would have been but trying to focus and keep up with what was happening on screen became difficult and you lose what happens to the characters.
Asa Butterfield is great in a role that guides us through the outskirts right into the very heart and disheartening midst of trench warfare. He plays the naive and excitable young soul well which makes certain changes in what he sees and eventually understands much more painfully real. Sam Claflin excels here, in what is the best performance I’ve seen him in. Clinging to whiskey and straining to retain calm is evidently felt and in one scene opposite Butterfield, he barks and foams at the mouth with an intensity that isn’t violent but one of increased frustration of how much he can bear. Paul Bettany gifts the film some good ol’ British spirit and stiff upper lip playing Osborne, and ensures to show that behind the eyes he’s just as scared as everyone. Stephen Graham and Toby Jones are other notable mentions who have moments of levity but ultimately are lost men drawn into the front.
This is a film that certainly makes you think. It’s a well made movie with an affecting tone which hangs over your head after the credits scroll. There’s an intensity and undeniable foreboding quality from start to finish.