Actor Sam Claflin experiences the hell and horror of war in two stunning new films.
Claflin and Gemma Arterton employ clipped diction and understated glances in Their Finest (which opens here on April 21): a stirring romantic comedy about an introspective producer (Claflin) running the government’s propaganda film unit in World War II. He hires a woman (Arterton) to create scripts and story ideas to help boost the war effort at home.
The movie, directed by Lone Scherfig, has priceless supporting performances by Bill Nighy, Rachael Stirling and Helen McCrory.
And Claflin recently completed work on Saul Dibb’s powerful screen version of R. C . Sherriff ’s play Journey’s End: a portrait of what it was like for a British unit in the trenches.
The 30-year-old actor plays Captain Stanhope, a sensitive alpha male and brilliant leader who has become a hard drinker: booze his only solace on the Front. The actor gives peerless performances in both pictures — and now other producers and film-makers are sitting up and taking note. “Sam goes to very dark places in Journey’s End,” said director Dibb, admiringly. “He looks like a man who has endured the awful things that happened over there.”
Whisky is Stanhope’s crutch. It helps him cope when he has to send his men out on raids, knowing full well most won’t return. Stanhope and his officers — superb acting from Paul Bettany, Stephen Graham and Asa Butterfield; with Toby Jones as cook — spend most of their time discussing the menu; the ‘yellow’ soup; the ‘cardboard’ chops. “They can’t talk about their fear, so they talk about food. It’s how they deal with their feelings,” Dibb said.
His exceptional film (which he hopes will be released this autumn, in time for Armistice Day, and before the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I next year) hurls the audience right into those hellish dugouts.
Claflin has done fine work before now. He was particularly striking in the television dramas Any Human Heart and White Heat, and I mustn’t forget about his performance opposite Rachel Weisz in the lushly produced film My Cousin Rachel, due out this summer.
But suddenly, he’s outstanding. He laughed when I say this and said he never intended to become an actor. “I ate, drank and slept football. I have played every single position bar goalkeeper. I didn’t have any inkling of what I wanted to do with my life, other than play or coach or live football.”
But at 16 he broke his ankle, and was in plaster for six weeks. During convalescence, he started wondering about the beautiful game. Was he, actually, any good? “My mum always says that even when I was playing football, I was still a drama queen,” he added.
So once his ankle healed, he gave real drama a go. Musicals first: third priest in Jesus Christ Superstar. Hungarian phony in My Fair Lady. Then Dodger in Oliver! He applied for musical theatre courses, but realised he couldn’t dance.
But later he was accepted by LAMDA, and has worked steadily ever since. He and his actress wife Laura Haddock have a toddler son. It’s clear from two conversations with Claflin that he’s crazy about both of them. He has become buddies with Arterton, too.
He likes the fact that both come from working-class backgrounds. “We’re now officially very good friends,” he laughed. “She’s not afraid of pushing you as an actor; and she’s not afraid of being pushed.” Though he did once push too far.
“On the set of Their Finest I accidentally knocked her over when I ran into her. She went flying. She forgave me though,” he said sheepishly.