Queen and Country (2014)
Eighty-one year old British director John Boorman returns to his celebrated 1987 semiautobiographical roots with Queen and Country, the sequel or companion-piece to Hope and Glory, which is set several years after its predecessor, during the Korean War. As some might recall, Boorman’s Oscar nominated Hope and Glory centered on an impressionable nine-year old boy, Bill Rohan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards), growing up in London during the blitz of World War 2; the picture documented his life and emotions during this era of total upheaval, as order, restriction and discipline were in dismay — I’m sure many remember Bill’s joy when he discovers that Adolf Hitler has reduced his school to a pile of rubble. Boorman’s new picture, Queen and Country, is set in 1952 and picks up directly where its forerunner left off — as if no time has intervened between the films — when Bill, (Callum Turner) who is now 18, is enlisted to carry out a two year conscription in the army as part of the National Service, right on the cusp of the Korean War. While at boot camp, the timid Bill befriends mischievous womanizer, Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), and the two keep themselves playfully entertained as the returning threat of combat — being shipped off to Korea — looms over them.
Initially, Queen and Country starts out as an old-fashioned service comedy — a cross between No Time for Sergeants (1964) and M*A*S*H (1972) shifting the action away from the bombed-out London suburbs to a military training base. While most might presume that the two young recruits will eventually be shipped off to war, they are instead, however, appointed sergeant and entrusted with the task of training other recruits in essential matters such as typing and map reading. Predominantly set in the military base, the film plays out like a sitcom as it centers on the mischief the pair generate; within their two years serving, they plot to outsmart their commanding officer, Bradley (David Thewlis), a strict by-the-book Sergeant Major who’s making their lives miserable — it’s evident that his masochistic love for protocol tries even the patience of his superiors. Bill’s views regarding Britain’s support of the Americans in Korea also get him into a spot of bother as his leaders believe him to be inciting insubordination.
In spite of this, the picture’s chief narrative focuses on an elaborate prank staged by Percy — executed simply for larks — along with the help of world class skiver Redmond (Pat Shortt), and involves stealing their pompous RSM Dibgy’s (Brían F. O’Byrne) regimental clock from the mess hall, causing him to go into a frenzy searching for its whereabouts. When the young men aren’t scheming around their base, they’re chasing tail about town, which leads to Bill’s infatuation with a mysterious woman (Tamsin Egerton) he encounters at string quartet recital. A thwarted relationship ignites when the shy Bill attempts to court the posh blonde — who permits him to call her ‘Ophelia,’ as she is unwilling to divulge details about her unknown provenance or complicated past.
Although the army scenes are pleasant enough, Queen and Country is at its best when Bill returns to his Shepperton home, ‘The Sphinx,’ for the duration of his leave from the National Service, and director Boorman reacquaints us with the extended cast of family and friends last seen in Hope and Glory. We see Bill’s mother Grace (Sinéad Cusack), father Clive (David Hayman), eccentric grandpa George (John Standing), and Bill’s vivacious sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) who has returned home from Canada, leaving her husband and children behind — she was last seen running off with a French-Canadian soldier at the end of the first film. These domestic scenes are a real pleasure to survey, as Boorman effortlessly paints a truthful picture of the era and life of ordinary middle-class post-war London. This trip home concludes in a delightful scene as the family gathers to watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, on their new black-and-white television set, highlighting the then promise of a bright new age.
This modest picture’s strength principally lies within its wonderful performances; newcomer Callum Turner is rather charming as the wide-eyed lead, Bill — Boorman’s alter ego — conveying his innocence while building on the character brought to life by Sebastian Rice-Edwards back in 1987 with Hope and Glory. Caleb Landry Jones, Antiviral (2012), is perhaps the picture’s weakest link, as he sometimes appears to be overplaying the wayward Percy, although his fuzzy portrayal of this schemer is perhaps the film’s only slight criticism. The supporting cast of players — largely comprising of military figures — are terrific, beginning with David Thewlis, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008), who breaths genuine life and personality into his role as the up-tight Major Bradley, maddened by the disordered nature of war, whilst Pat Shortt’s, Calvary (2014), comical exposé of the aging, cowardly Private Redmond — who’s successfully weaseled his way out of being drafted to Korea several times — is a blast. Brían F. O’Byrne, Million Dollar Baby (2004), is equally as amusing as the arrogant RSM, who spends the majority of the picture tracking down the whereabouts of his cherished ‘misplaced’ clock. Richard E. Grant, Dracula (1992), is given the heavy task of embodying the exhausted bureaucrat in charge of them all, the aptly named Major Cross; other noteworthy mentions go to Julian Wadham, The English Patient (1996), as Colonel Fielding, a frustrated court-martial judge who appears to have had it up to his neck with numerous officers, and Bill’s romantic interest, Tamsin Egerton, St. Trinian’s (2007), who aptly captures Ophelia’s sorrow in her large hazel eyes.
In terms of Rohan family members — who are still residing on that quaint little island in the middle of the River Thames — David Hayman, Sid and Nancy (1986) — the only member of the original cast to reprise his role — generates several laughs as Bill’s grumbling father, Clive, whereas Sinéad Cusack, Eastern Promises (2007), is gentle as his mother Grace, who has evidentially ceased her wartime liaison with a local resident, although the former lovers still wave silently — pretty much daily — whenever they see one other. The film’s clear standout though, is the vibrant Vanessa Kirby, The Rise (2012), whose energetic portrayal of Dawn, Bill’s sister, is an absolute delight as the character’s infectious energy seems to radiate from Kirby with natural ease — here’s hoping this is the foundation of a bright future for the gorgeous young actress.
Whilst Queen and Country is a primarily a comedy, Boorman sometimes tackles various harsh truths regarding the period, in turn generating an uncanny sense of reality at various points in the film. A sincere piece by Boorman, part of the fun of this autobiographical effort is guessing which events are actually taken out of Boorman’s life and which are fictitious. One can assume that his friendship with nurse, Sophie Adams (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), is taken directly out of Boorman’s reality, as is his banal task of teaching new recruits at the military base. One thing’s for certain, Boorman’s passion for film comes through quite evidently within the character of Bill. Growing up near Shepperton Studios — now part of The Pinewood Studio Group — Boorman gives nods to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashômon (1950) — an enlightening conversation emerges between Bill and Ophelia regarding its multiple perspectives — Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) and Billy Wilder’s film-noir classic Sunset Blvd. (1950), allowing his young inner film-buff to shine. Queen and Country finishes with protagonist Bill, shooting a film scene on the Shepperton riverbank, and concludes on a close-up shot of a humming camera, perhaps a nod to a future third volume of Bill’s story, focusing on his beginnings as a filmmaker and his early days in the British film industry.
Screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Boorman’s Queen and Country lacks the peril of Hope and Glory and hardly reinvents the wheel, so to speak, but this confident picture serves as a testament to a director who’s been working in the industry for over half a century. Functioning as a snapshot into Army life and family living in post-war England, Queen and Country is a welcome addition to Boorman’s unique filmography — it’s difficult to fathom that this same director was responsible for the 1981 hit, Excalibur. Production on Queen and Country is small but flash; the picture is well written and aptly performed whilst remaining enormously enjoyable, standing as the perfect vehicle for lazy, Saturday, matinee escapism.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Queen and Country is produced by Merlin Films
A sweet and ultimately satisfying post-war drama, it avoids the clichés that plague some war films to deliver a solid experience…