Great British performances crown director Saul Dibb’s powerful adaptation of RC Sherrif’s classic stage play about the trenches of WWI.
Asa Butterfield is the fresh-faced lad come to join his hero, Captain Stanhope, on the front line, only to discover that his idol (and his big sister’s possible fiancee) has become a morose, shell-shocked drunk. What’s more, they’ve just received orders for a big push, to go over the top, which is basically a suicide note, and all the company knows it.
Stanhope (impeccably played by Sam Claflin) puts on a brave moustache but we feel his fear and his self-hatred, fuelled by his own questioning of the War. Dibb keeps things mainly in the officers’ quarters, basing dialogue around the meal times when the various figures representing the English class system all come together – including Stephen Graham’s chirpy Scouser, Toby Jones’ grimly resourceful cook and Paul Bettany’s stoic, pipe-smoking school teacher nicknamed ‘Uncle’ for his reasoned, avuncular approach. Bettany’s fabulous here, a role he was basically born to play.
Everyone is on top form and Dibb keeps the tension high, giving us a real sense of the cramped quarters and the dank air, thick with a pungency of doom. It’s top quality British stuff, elegantly put together, admirably acted, and perfectly designed to get that stiff upper lip quivering.