Based on an alarmingly recent real-life story, Stronger could have been a rainy-day, “fetch the tissues” melodrama, romping along predictably, leaving viewers inspired to go forth with renewed vigour. Instead, it is a gritty tale cloven with discomfort, raw and flawed humanity, exquisitely portrayed pain and suffering, and barely a hint of sugar-coating.
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of those actors whose name carries a high degree of dependability. He’s had his flops, but as Jeff Bauman in Stronger, he shows once more that he is a painfully-talented actor, his depiction of pain and recovery jarringly real, in an inspiring, tissue-soaking love story. He is joined by a fantastic ensemble cast, all of whom reinforce the impression that these are ordinary people with their own flaws and problems even before the tragic Boston Marathon attack. The remarkable Tatiana Maslany plays the guilt-ridden Erin Hurley, Jeff’s ex-girlfriend who he turned up to support at the marathon, eager to regain her heart. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Maslany is utterly believable, building a relationship that is profoundly authentic, run through with anguish and emotion.
Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) forces the audience to share in the experience with very personal filming. The camera puts you inside the personal space of the character under focus and invites you into their all-consuming thoughts, the shallow depth of field blotting out all background noise. The scene in which Gyllenhaal’s character has his bandages changed for the first time is particularly powerful, really drawing you into the raw, gut-twisting pain portrayed so convincingly.
The film’s promotional material includes the strapline, “Admitting your limitations and accepting help makes you stronger,” but the more explicit theme is the confusing labelling of heroism. The circumstances of Jeff Bauman’s injury, though devastating, could not exactly be considered heroic and rarely does Gyllenhaal cut a hero aesthetic during the movie. He accepts all the pain killers offered to him on the hospital bed, slumps in his wheelchair, is consistently late or even absent from rehab, and barely manages a thumbs up in public appearances, never mind a smile. He is at best a hollow-eyed, emotional and resentful hostage in his self-defined misery with a floundering family forced to revolve around him. His hero status is imposed on him by the media and reinforced by his dysfunctional family for no reason beyond survival. The words “what did I do?” linger on his lips from the moment he leaves the hospital but as the film goes on, new people enter his life – the father of two deceased sons who picked Bauman up at the scene, the grieving brother of a soldier, a child searching for hope in a scary world – and they help him realise that survival is enough. He learns to live and love the best life he can.
Don’t, please, wait for the DVD or digital release. The real power of this movie is in its immediacy, claustrophobia and emotional immersion, the like of which are unattainable on a small screen in your living room mediated by all the distractions of domestic life. I am left helplessly disgruntled with the commercialisation of heroism, but also ringing with the message that we should lean on our loved ones and let them lean on us too. Going it alone does no one any good. Stronger lodges itself firmly in the audience’s psyche, occasionally poking the sleeping dragon born from laziness and self-absorption, and telling us that we are stronger together.
If Stronger is about hope, then Journey’s End is about the absence of it. An adaptation of a play by the same name, Journey’s End tells the story of an infantry platoon waiting for an inevitable German assault on the front line in WW1. It is a reflection on how different men cope under the encroaching shadow of death.
There is platoon commander Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) who is a shadow of his former self, shrouded in despair, who has turned to the fuzzy embrace of whisky: “I can’t bear to be fully conscious”. His cook “Mason!” (Toby Jones), in the mould of Blackadder’s Baldrick, provides some semblance of comic relief while Paul Bettany’s fatherly Osborne/’Uncle’ oversees the men and the audience with a comforting, albeit resigned stoicism. Trotter (Stephen Graham) is the battle-hardened, scruffy and unlikely officer offset uncomfortably by Tom Sturridge’s shell-shocked Hibbert. Finally, the round-faced and youthful Asa Butterfield plays the wet behind the ears young 2nd Lieutenant brimming with enthusiasm and naivety. The audience follows him to the trenches where he eagerly requests to join Captain Stanhope, school friend and older sister’s lover, on the front line. Everyone, audience included, sends him off with a great sense of foreboding, his apparently relentless optimism blinding him from the horrifying reality that awaits him.
The interior scenes are reminiscent of the original stage play, but the claustrophobia inherent of the stage setting is not quite the same as the characters are able to venture above ground. A single location screenplay might have made for a very different production and perhaps one packing a bit more artistic punch. I found the adaptation a little patchy in places, dealing awkwardly with certain deaths and putting together confusing battle scenes. A personal bugbear of mine is when a script says what it could/should show, and one instance of this stuck out: it is pretty easy to portray disgust in a facial expression, particularly where a repugnant smell is concerned. Unfortunately, Butterfield’s character – and the audience – have to be told that it smells like rotten flesh rather than being shown through the wrinkling of noses, or such like. Maybe I’m being unnecessarily picky here.
The film’s most stirring scene and redeeming feature amidst all the alcoholism, despair and hopelessness, is the touching exchange between Bettany’s Osborne and Butterfield’s Raleigh; weathered veteran and apprehensive youth, in the moments before going over the top. Both are battle-ready as Osborne tries to enjoy his last pipe while simultaneously distracting his young fellow officer from the impending horror of battle. With time ticking inexorably towards the whistle, Osborne quells his exasperation for Raleigh’s feverish questions and the pair end up reciting poetry in what you’d imagine would be a climactic emotional scene in the stage play.
The experiences of both Stronger and Journey’s End are defined by the immediacy of the filmmaking. In both films the audience is dragged into the environment with the characters but are in some ways polar opposites of each other. In Stronger, one young man is beset with tragedy and by simply surviving is labelled a hero, a situation he neither wants nor understands. In Journey’s End, the men more naturally fit the hero mould, wrapped in the wool military uniforms and mud of the infantry, fighting a war every Western child knows about. Theirs is a situation they cannot escape from, as is Jeff Bauman’s, only Jeff has a way out through family, through love and through acceptance.
Stronger will be released on the 8th December in the UK and you’ll have to wait until 2nd February next year to get a taste of Journey’s End.