Journey’s End [2018] – A Harrowing First World War Drama Elevated by the Superb Cast


The Great War (World War I) is often overshadowed by World War II. What’s forgotten is not just the legacy and sacrifices of European soldiers, but also the struggles of multi-ethnic laborers and troops (from India, South East Asia, and Africa). Perhaps it is so because the Great War didn’t have a clearly drawn distinction between good and evil, compared to the easily detestable figures of Hitler and Mussolini in World War II. Or may be the death toll statistics (37 million + vs 56 million +) makes us highlight the squalor and inhumanity of one over the other. With four years of brutal trench warfare and use of deadly chemical warfare agent, the destruction and horror World War I brought upon human race was unprecedented. And from a cinematic perspective, the conflict of The Great War is harder to tackle or make it work in dramatic ways, although there have been numerous painstakingly detailed literature and personal accounts. R.C. Sheriff’s 1928 play Journey’s End is one of the classic works of WWI literature, which depicts the daily routines of a platoon of British Soldiers stationed on the horrendous Western Front as they wait for an impending German assault.

Sheriff’s play was well renowned in its time which was first performed in London with Laurence Olivier in the cast. A film version was also made by James Whale in 1930 (shortly before he made his classic work ‘Frankenstein’). Saul Dibb (The Duchess, Suite Francaise) has now brought it back to the big screen for the first time in nearly 90 years. Furthermore it’s a well-crafted adaption that (working from a script by Simon Reade), if not a masterpiece, at least deserves a place in the list of hard-hitting movies tackling the subject of trench warfare. Starting from Abel Gance’s ‘I Accuse’ (1919; which he remade it in 1938), Lewis Milestone’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) to Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) and Peter Weir’s ‘Gallipoli’ (1981), the cinematic trenches and dugouts have powerfully told the tales of suffering and undying human spirit. Although it’s been nearly a centennial since the events depicted in Journey’s End occurred, the wounds not simmering and raw, its immersive vision of young and old generations of men caught in the purgatorial landscape deeply conveys the human costs of war, unlike any informational type videos and detailed wikipedia articles.

Journey’s End follows soldiers preparing for battle. It’s a study of their pervasive sense of dread that always soaring in the claustrophobic, rat-infested hell-hole. The narrative focuses on imparting a lived-in experience to the viewers rather than displaying the thrill of battle. It’s very low on bloodletting and there are no images of mutilated, limbless bodies. The sheer unpleasantness confronted in Journey’s End is purely psychological. It’s a compilation of deeply felt exchanges between men who know they are going to die soon; not simply die, but eviscerated by machine guns and shells. That could have been easily turned into a cliché, or the script simply may have failed to elevate the material from its theatrical roots to cinematic medium. But thanks to the tremendous casting and performances, the film rarely seems stagey or boxed-in.

Journey’s End opens few days before what would be later known as ‘Spring Offensive’, the last push by the German to emerge victorious, which of course failed and cost the lives of 800,000 men on both sides. In March 1918, the members of C Company, led by young Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), marched into a muddy trench, somewhere in Northern France. They are to wait there for six days, and if no German offensive takes place another Company would take their place. But the intelligence says the enemy's advance is coming very soon. The handsome but broken Stanhope had been tirelessly working from the beginning of war to protect his men and represses his PTSD symptoms with whisky. He flies into rage over every little thing. However, Stanhope is often assuaged by the presence of his second-in-command, Lieutenant Osborne (Paul Bettany), a former schoolteacher, who maintains his grace even amidst the squalidness and terror. The men belovedly address him as ‘Uncle’.

Fresh-faced officer James Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) who is eager to get into the action gets himself assigned to the C Company. He is also friends with Stanhope, whose sweetheart is Raleigh’s elder sister. He is dashing and wants to savor the ‘spectacle’ of battlefield. But he is harshly brought back to earth after witnessing Stanhope’s gradual mental breakdown. Stanhope largely ignores Raleigh, fearing that Raleigh’s sister will know about his sorry state. Rounding up this company’s officer crew are the cheery and resolute Trotter (Stephan Graham) and shell-shocked, mentally-afflicted Hibbert (Tom Sturridge). Another pivotal member occupying the officer quarters in the trenches is docile cook Mason (Toby Jones). The deadline of German attack is fast dwindling. And these soldiers like cancer-ridden patients at a hospice wait for the inevitable; some with a steely nerve and some with a barely concealed rage.

Journey’s End is easily director Saul Dibb’s career best work and far great than his previous cloying war drama 'Suite Francaise' (2014). Raede’s impressive script and Dibb’s visual acuity never makes the action feel stagy, although it mostly takes place inside a single setting. The eventual daylight raid in the play allows Raede to sharply illustrate the nonchalance of the officer class members of the army. When the old Patrician General asks Captain Stanhope to finish the raid before it gets dark and says he wants the results before in time for dinner, the fury kindled within us doesn’t associate wickedness only with the 'foreign' enemy. Even though Sheriff’s play doesn’t include a prominent private soldier character, the whole atmosphere of paranoia and anxiety sadly notes the imminent senseless slaughter of the common soldiers (not just British; even the captured German private remains antsy). Films like Hacksaw Ridge (2016), in attempting to portray the senseless deaths in the battlefield somehow turned the same into a spectacle (with its video-game violence). But Journey’s End purely conveys the psychological unrest of wandering through the mud-squelching trenches. The de-saturated exterior color palette, the gorgeous candle-lit interiors, and the good use of shallow focus close-ups by Dibb and cinematographer Laurie Rose (Ben Wheatley’s regular DP) perfectly embodies the hopelessness of war and the unnerving emotions it brings to surface (also aided by Natalie Holt’s unsettling orchestral score).

There are few stretches in the movie that may feel a bit of a drag for a casual viewer, but for those interested in World War I history (like me) it feels captivating right to the end. There might be nothing surprising in the narrative, and the frustration, pain, and madness of war may have been more supremely depicted in other works of cinematic masters. Yet it’s outstanding cast, and earnest efforts to avoid sentimentality makes Journey’s End one of the profound war-experience cinema in recent times. Stanhope is probably Sam Claflin’s best role. Look out for the scene, where he sends his men to their deaths, his eyes showcase a gamut of emotions within few minutes. To Claflin’s credit, there’s not a tinge of melodrama in his characters’ downward spiral. Paul Bettany’s Osborne is the gently swaying candlelight flame to Stanhope’s forest-fire-like rage. It’s nothing short of heartbreaking to watch Bettany calmly preparing for the worse, while retaining his amicable nature even in the face of futility. The duo genuinely wrings out tears from our eyes, not just for their characters, but also for the countless men who were really thrown to their deaths by the posh officers. Eventually, Journey’s End (107 minutes) isn’t just a dense catalog of battlefront horrors. It also pays tribute to the strength and endurance of human spirit, which naturally outlasts the despicably archaic worldview of apathetic Generals. Altogether, it’s a topnotch war drama sans grandiose spectacle. 


Tehran Taboo [2017] – The Heinous Secrets of a Morally Rigid Society

Iranian born German film-maker Ali Soozandeh’s Tehran Taboo (2017) offers a searing, eye-opening portrait of Iran’s police state. Considering the subject matter and censorship in place, the movie couldn’t be naturally shot in the streets of Tehran. Hence, Mr. Ali has chosen the medium of animation, creating the bustling capital city through computer imagery and further bestowing a realistic dimension by rotoscope style animation (live-action image of real actors, shot against a green screen, are placed inside the animated layers; Richard Linklater used it artfully in Waking Life & A Scanner Darkly). Rotoscoping drives the aesthetics towards realism without entirely losing its dreamy effect. Moreover, this technique perfectly works since the live-action footage would remain too blunt for the shocking material. 

Tehran Taboo takes a dip into the ugly innards of Iran’s capital city, unveiling the hypocrisy and debauchery thriving under the mask of religious strictness and sexual morality. It’s a triptych of interconnected stories, presenting the deeply corrupted hidden face of the society, from the perspective of three women. The plot-line might remind us of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (2000) which showcased the plight of different women in an extremely oppressive sexist Iranian society. Nevertheless, Ali Soozandeh unlike the Iran-based film-makers talks about the taboos directly and delineates the sexual restrictions through the astutely staged scenarios. The movie opens with a woman performing an oral sex on a cabbie driving his car (after accepting cash), while the woman’s young mute son is impassively sitting in the backseat. When the cabbie notices his daughter walking down the street, holding a young man’s hand he rages and crashes his taxi. This hard-hitting tone practically sets the tone for the rest of the narrative.

Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) has to take care of her mute little boy Elias (Bilal Yasar) as her husband is imprisoned on drug charges. He is sentenced to life, but refuses to divorce her or provide signed document that may allow her to take a job or enroll her son in a school. Pari approaches a judge of the Islamic Revolutionary Court. The judge in turn offers a simple proposition: to be his kept woman, in exchange for living in a new upscale apartment. For groceries and other costs, she could service her other clients. Despite the terrible situation, Pari remains undeterred and does whatever it takes for the well-being of her son. Sara (Zarhra Amir Ebrahimi), Pari’s new neighbor, is a pregnant woman married to a banker. Her desire is to work. But her husband is reluctant to sign the document that would give her the permission. Therefore, Sara is pinned down to do the household duties and take care of her pestering in-laws. Struggling musician and student Babak (Arash Marandi) also lives in the same housing block, who makes love to a young woman named Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) in the nightclub toilet after taking few drinks and drugs. She calls him the next day and informs that he has deflowered her, and if her fiance finds out he would murder them both. Babak promises to pay Donya for the hymen-reconstruction surgery (an underground business) and now forced to make some quick money. Percolating the lives of these four connected characters are the fury-inducing double standards of the morally rigid Iranian society.

Director Soozandeh’s critique of the dark, hidden world resulting from Iran’s cultural policies suffers a bit from overwrought plotting (especially in the final act). But the film’s technical accomplishment with its poetic interludes is nothing short of astounding. It’s a great testament to the medium’s ability and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s sharp compositions that the computer-generated Tehran itself feels like a character, popping to life with colorful hues. The movie is at its best when it goes for visual poetics, not particularly concerned with the plot trajectory. Soozandeh’s focus lingers on intriguing specific details: like Elias using his mother’s condom as water balloon and dropping it out of balcony for fun; burger ads in the radio; the litter of kittens concealed within the narrow spaces of the high-rise; the recurrent shots of flying birds foreboding the sad and heart-breaking denouement; scenes set inside a photo studio, where all the four characters get their portrait taken as a off-the-screen photographer blandly asks about the occasion for the photograph (single viewing isn’t enough to comprehend the meaning of some of the tangled metaphors). The director is also fascinated with balconies as if it’s the only private space far removed from the prying looks of the oppressive theocratic society.

Although the narrative is bleak and tragic, there are certain comic overtones, especially with Babak’s attempt to restore Donya’s virginity. There’s a kind of absurdist humor in the manner Pari takes up the sleazy judge’s offer (and also when two women talk about men in a balcony over a dirty martini). In fact, the farcical wit and slightly softening effect of rotoscoping gracefully melds the harsher aspects of the story-line. Soozandeh largely doesn’t intend to make heroes or martyrs out of his women characters. They are rather shown as flawed individuals, possessing all the understandable human desires, but traumatized by an uncaring system. At the same time, Soozandeh doesn’t take pains to humanize the elderly male characters (all of them come across as villains). The black-mailing janitor, Sara’s father in-law who watches porn and swiftly switches to religious speech once a family member walks into the room, the deviant judge are all used to personify the previous old generation in a unpleasant manner, questioning them for succumbing to religious fundamentalism. Such characterizations allow the narrative to belabor its view so as to make it teeter towards one-dimensional melodrama. But for all those minor flaws, Tehran Taboo (95 minutes) deftly focuses on the morbid realities of civilian life in a society where hypocrisy, fear, and repressive paradoxical laws reign. 


Summer 1993 [2017] – A Bewitching Reflection on a Child’s Comprehension of Loss and Love

Childhood mentality is a bit hard to interpret in reality and difficult to capture in fiction. A fallacious narrative structure could easily give into sentiment, turning the depthful, oft indecipherable emotions of a child into an uncomplicated exercise in heart-tugging cuteness. More daunting is the task to maturely portray a child’s sense of grief and loss. Rene Clement’s 1952 masterpiece Forbidden James (Jeux interdits), set in 1940 in the backdrop of war, delicately presented an orphaned, traumatized child’s attempt to come to terms with the realities of death. Victor Erice’s spellbinding The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Carlos Saura’s searing psychological portrait Cria Cuervos (1976) – both the lead child role played by luminous performer Ana Torrent – also authentically mirrored a child’s perspective, laden with death and abandonment (Del Toro’s seamless blend of fantasy and confounding reality in Pans’ Labyrinth owes a lot to these two movies). Catalan film-maker Carla Simon’s debut feature Summer 1993 (2017) is deeply personal, compared to the hefty sociopolitical undertones encompassing the aforementioned works. Nevertheless, it is yet another artful depiction of a wilful child’s reckoning with traumatic emotions.

Winner of the best first feature prize at Berlin Film Festival (in 2017), director/writer Carla Simon has pursued a subject matter she’s very familiar with. Unfolding like series of recollected memories instead of following a linear three-act structure, Simon channels her own childhood experiences of trying to fit in with the new adopted family after her parents’ death. It’s a visual memoir that’s deeply perceptive, affectionate, and heartfelt but never sentimental. The layer of harsh as well as poignant truths the film bestows upon us resolutely tells how a familiar story can remain anew when ingrained with skillful subtlety. Carla Simon’s intention from the very shot is to delineate the inexpressible sense of isolation, blind fury, and displacement faced by the six-year-old motherless child, Frida (Laia Artigas). In the opening scenes, the camera first hangs behind the six-year-old and then attunes to Frida’s quiet upward gaze as the fireworks are exploding above.  Despite the festivities outside, Frida’s boxed-in view of the world tells something about her tumultuous inner-state. Frida is leaving her extended family (aunts and grandparents) in Barcelona to live with her uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer), aunt Marga (Bruna Cusi), and lively little Cousin Anna (Paula Robles) in their idyllic country home.

The new family and quiet country life isn’t obviously easy to adjust for little Frida. Nevertheless, her new parents are caring. Moreover, she now has a wonderful playmate and a sister. The narrative spends time to account the daily activities of Frida who is simultaneously lost in feelings of happiness and underlying pain.  Carla Simon doesn’t straight-forwardly convey the circumstances surrounding Frida’s mother’s death, but she gives little hints. A doctor rigorously subjects Frida to series of tests. A casual play-date with local children ends embarrassing when Frida falls down and scraps her knee, causing panic among aunt Marga and other parents. Frida also doesn’t understand the significance of her aunt/new mom tending her wounds after wearing rubber gloves. The fictional mother and Simon’s mother died due to HIV virus. It was an era when unfounded fear regarding AIDS transmission unsettled the society. This social stigma of the 1990s is so subtly portrayed that it could even be missed. These crucial plot points relegated to background doesn't stop us from wholly understanding certain scene’s purpose and emotional truth. The subtlety also helps in not single-mindedly labeling Frida as an outcast.

Summer 1993 in many ways works as a deeply affecting examination of childhood psychology. Frida’s sudden antagonism and jealousy directed towards little Anna (in one sequence she leaves the younger girl behind in the woods and lies to Marga about it), her feelings of fear and genuine concern when Marga feels sick, and the tantrum Frida throws when the visiting grandparents are about to leave, all such delicate small moments displays how a child responds to perplexing feelings of grief and loneliness. But the movie’s unfaltering strength lies in the way it avoids sensationalizing the narrative for few cathartic, heart-breaking moments. And despite the authentic treatment of the girl’s trauma, the children’s capability for resilience and love isn’t underplayed. Director Simon also doesn’t make us doubt about Frida’s interest in coping with her new family.

The tale might be simple, it’s ending easily foreseeable, but the texture and performances, diffused with air of authenticity, leaves a lasting impact. A lot of scenes involving Frida and Anna are filmed in a remarkably natural manner. Although scripted, the exchanges between the two children have superb dynamics. In one funny, static shot Frida dons make-up, wears sunglasses, her hands holding a faux-cigarette playing a caricature of mom and bosses around Anna. While the interaction between Frida and Anna is so entertaining, I found the undulating relationship between Frida and Marga more heart-breaking. Frida constantly tests her limits with Marga, pushing to see how much she can get away with. The girl’s gambit goes bad after it leaves Anna with an injury. Later, it’s touching to see how Frida tries to smooth things with her new mom, dreading that she would be once again displaced. The adult characters were also sensitively observed. The grandparents uncontrollably dote on Frida. The grandmother repeatedly tries to instill religious faith in Frida, the lack of which they may feel is what lead to their daughter’s shortcomings. The conflict between Marga and grandmother in disciplining Frida is also observed with nuance. Marga’s general wariness alongside her commitment to include Frida into their lives acutely showcases the ebb and flow of family life.

Simon’s sun-drenched cinematography of the lush setting of the Catalonian countryside imparts warmth and intimacy like the natural characterizations. Director Simon has controlled every little detail in the performances and setting which rather comes across as intuitive and natural. But formal devices are almost unnoticeable, demonstrating how much can be expressed with an observant camera without being showy. The performances are dominant aspect of Summer 1993. Laia Artigas is as brilliant as Ana Torrent in emoting the inner state of a troubled child. Laia and Paula’s casting is said to have taken more than 6 months and the narrative’s episodic, small moments largely works due to their unaffected, naturalistic presence. Frida’s bottled emotional pain could almost be traced in Laia’s face and hence it’s a huge cathartic moment when the girl, late in the film, sports a warm giggle. Cusi shines in her role (Marga) despite Simon’s kid-centric approach.

Summer 1993 (97 minutes) is a nuanced and heartwarming tale of a little girl overcoming tragedy while attempting to tap into the unconditional love of her new adoptive family. Thankfully, it never exploits the child’s emotional stakes for melodramatic entertainment and rather gets enriched by the narrative’s complex, psychological layers. 



Sunday’s Illness [2018] – A Gently Paced Emotional Drama

Although Spanish film-maker Ramon Salazar’s exquisitely crafted feature-film Sunday’s Illness (‘La Enfermedad del Domingo’, 2018) has had a Netflix release and screened at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, it has so far seems to have a muted reception. It could very well be one of the hidden gems of 2018 and would listed as such while reminiscing on the year’s cinema. On the outset Sunday’s Illness looks like an unambiguous, melancholic family drama, a mother-daughter reunion with its own miasma of emotional baggage. But what stops the movie from getting shuffled among the array of parental reunion dramas are the beautiful display of craft and irrefutably outstanding performances.

Ramon Salazar’s characters never explicitly state anything and his visual approach too hints at possible developments through neatly constructed foreshadows. He opens the movie in dense woods, capturing the large, intimidating trees whose firm roots courses through earth like veins. A woman slowly walks through the forest and stands looking at the hollowed-out space of a gigantic tree trunk. The shot cuts to a palatial mansion. An immaculately dressed elderly woman walks with an air of authority to her dining room. Her heel catches up with the gown and she briefly stumbles. A gaze into a sort of abyss and an unforeseen stumble hints of what’s to come. There’s something unsettling and eerie in director Salazar’s tone at least for the first half-hour. It nearly appears to be an art-house revenge/horror flick that may reveal its sinister core any time. Nevertheless, the narrative takes a more emotional approach; the lack of overt showcase of feelings and long silences may seem dry for some, but I felt that it’s part of the narrative’s authentic, powerful emotional force.

Wealthy Barcelonian socialite Anabel (Susi Sanchez) has hired a team of waiters for her lavish charity dinner. She curtly briefs them on the code of conduct. Chiara (Barbara Lennie) is one of the waiters. Her presence upsets Anabel for unknown reasons. It turns out that Anabel is Chiara’s mother whom she abandoned 35 years earlier (when Chiara was 8 years old). Chiara has grown up with her father, but the mother’s abandonment has profoundly affected her in myriad ways. Anabel has married again and basks in high-profile life-style with husband Bernabe. Later, Anabel meets Chiara and hears her daughter’s strange request: to spend 10 days at her rural home, situated in the picturesque and isolated French Pyreenes. Anabel and her husband don’t know what to make of this request and they engage a lawyer to make Chiara sign a contract. Chiara agrees to not make contact with her mother after the 10-day stay. The mother and daughter leave the city behind, and the narrative follows them testing the complexities involved in their strained relationship. Anabel also persistently wonders about the real reason for Chiara’s request (of course the hint is laid bare in the title).

The initial, unspoken eeriness generates plenty of emotional tension. The threat of violence (the dying seagull) and psychological torture (the false story about the dog abandoned in a well) heavily hangs in the air. Moreover, the glacial pace combined with the atmosphere of silence and festering resentment subliminally points out to inevitable explosion of emotions. But our early suspicions gradually disintegrate as the mother & daughter bring down those figurative armors and face masks to allow deep feelings of compassion and resilience to slightly change their composure. The self-destruction, confusion, anger and anguish that’s pervaded Chiara’s life for 35 years charges each scene with powerful emotional undercurrent which is encountered by Anabel with a bit of gracefulness, stoicism, and remorse. Mistrust and anger is never fully dispelled from their damaged relationship, although it’s riveting to watch them comprehending each other’s emotional baggage.

DP Ricardo de Gracia and director Salazar's carefully calculated design of tone and images may feel a bit schematic at times. However, the topnotch performances at the center retain the narrative’s ethereal quality from first till end. Susi Sanchez and Barbare Lennie’s ability to bring emotional complexity with sparse dialogues stands as a testament to the film’s brilliance. I liked the carnival scene, where Anabel first watches Chiara joyfully riding a carousel and later whisks her drunken daughter from a groping, drunk stranger. Lennie devastatingly expresses her character’s yearning for rescue and Sanchez’ subtly conveys the power of parental connection. Then there’s a long, wordless shot of mother & daughter riding a high-speed monorail through the forest which evokes set of emotions that couldn’t easily be put into words (if the scene is a metaphor for ‘something’ I couldn’t figure it out).

Salazar’s writing never let the characters to be ruled by their emotions. He doesn’t pretend to divulge 35 years of buried feelings in the span of 10 days. Yet the director fleetingly discloses some of the emotions in a creative and indirect manner. For example, the scene Anabel starts dancing, thinking that Chiara is not at home. Her face is stern and her moves are awkward, but slowly the hard shell seems to crack and she seems to search for liberation/emotional release through the dance movements. Even the two characters’ contrasting costume choices tells a lot about them (Chiara wears out-dated dress since she’s still stuck at the time her mother left). The wondrous aesthetics keeps us in its grip even when the story takes a foreseeable path. Be it the dilapidated farmhouse or the bright interiors of a French restaurant, the images appears like an enchanting painting. The elegant scene transition that employs the sound of a shutter is equally fascinating, bestowing the feel of observing snapshots of mother-daughter’s emotional evolution. In the end, Sunday’s Illness may not have a strong puzzle to make us entirely surprised by its final revelation, but the extraordinary performances and stunningly beautiful visuals garnered my full attention.