Queen and Country (2014)

John Boorman continues the story of his early life with an early  Fifties comedy

Queen and Country is a less momentous, less unified, but thoroughly enjoyable sequel, 27 years later, to John Boorman’s celebrated film memoir of life as a child in London under the Blitz, Hope and Glory. This time Boorman, now 82, picks up the earlier film’s nine-year-old hero William (Bill) Rohan nine years later. Reaching draft age, he becomes a National Service conscript in 1952, when George VI is about to die and Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation symbolically moves Britain away from postwar austerity and into prosperity, though the country may have shrunk in the world. The youthful point of view still makes everything seem larger than life. But the world is quieter, and nothing is as crucial here as in the earlier film. Nonetheless the episodic Queen and Country offers many pleasures and shows the sure hand of a master.Bill is played with lanky swank by ex-Next-model Callum Turner, and his best pal in the Army, the immoral prankster Percy Hapgood, is embodied with relish by the American actor Caleb Landry Jones, who later last year was a druggie homeless youth in Heaven Knows What. Both boys (in the film; not the actors) are evidently virgins; Bill certainly is. And that has to end, of course.

The basic training phase is sketched in with a swift comic touch. Of marching and the parade ground Bill’s voiceover says “when we got it right it was like a dance troupe; it was exhilarating.” This observation is a lovely touch, a sign of the artist to come. The boys get lucky and aren’t sent to fight with the Yanks in Korea as might have happened. Instead they become instruction sergeants. First they boisterously drill even greener and sillier soldiers on how to type: it’s almost like musical comedy. Later Bill, who’s got leftist tendencies, briefs young troops about Korea, where they’re headed. He speaks with ironic coolness on this Asian conflict’s role in the worldwide capitalist-communist hostilities known as the Cold War, and says General MacArthur is probably crazy. When called on the carpet he shows all his shocking declarations have come straight from the Times of London.

All the while Percy and Bill are busy dodging their superiors, amusingly played by David Thewlis as the rules-obsessed NCO Bradley and Richard E. Grant as his hilariously condescending superior Major Cross, with Brían F. O’Byrne as the slightly hysterical RSM Digby. In their spare time they flirt with girls. In particular Bill courts a posh, depressed Oxford student met at a concert whom he calls Ophelia (Tamlin Edgerrton). She seems an older and grimmer version of Cassie of “Skins” (Hannah Murray). The boys also meet and spy on a sexy young nurse, Peggy (Miriam Rizea), who likes them both, but Bill more..

William, as “Ophelia” calls him, takes her punting on the Thames and they decide to go and see Kurosawa’s Rashomon, on whose meaning they differ. Growing up post-war on a small Thames island near Shepperton Studios, Bill is already enamoured of cinema. He and Percy are keen to see Strangers on a Train, and perhaps emulate it, since they dream of offing their superiors, and not getting caught, or at least Percy does. Things liven up when, on leave, Bill visits his family, including his lively sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby). Dawn keeps her Canadian accent but is abandoning her French Canadian husband, met in London during the War, and for the moment her children. Also on hand are the parents, Sinead Cusack as the mother who’s still wanly unfaithful, and David Hayman, the only actor held over from Hope and Glory, as Bill’s dad. The big event at the family reunion, and the turning point for these times, is watching the Coronation on the family’s first TV, acquired for this event. “Ophelia’s ” visit is both a revelation and a disappointment. Percy comes with a natty stolen red sport car, and connects with the wild Dawn, with whom Bill himself seems almost incestuously close.

The major event of Percy and Bill’s military careers, straddling the middle interlude with family, is the theft of the regiment’s Victorian clock, Percy’s wildest venture, undertaken with the complicity of Jones (Pat Shortt), the lazy career enlisted man who has been lecturing the boys on how to be a skiver (“slacker” in American). This has serious consequences for Percy, and confirms both the boys’ friendship and their differences. It’s admittedly a bit small for a climactic event: Boorman doesn’t try to capture the grandiose absurdity of Catch-22. What happens to Bradley later acquires more resonance. Percy remains involved with Dawn, and just after he’s been dumped by “Ophelia” Bill loses his virginity as a first aid intervention of nurse Peggy, who was to be Percy’s girl. Percy goes off for months to Shepton Mallet Military Prison, but he has not lost Dawn, now joined by her two kids from Canada.

Some of these episodes, particularly events on leave and the portraits of Army superiors, recall parts of the wartime novels of Anthony Powell’s Music of Time, though they lack a Widmerpool and have no big war outside to threaten tragedy. Lightness prevails, with Boorman, who wrote as well as directed, showing the benign perspective and “leggerezza” of age. If the film isn’t up to the handful of his very best films, it’s still a return to form after lackluster recent efforts (In My Country, The Tiger’s Tale). If turns out to be the man’s last film, it will be a perfectly fine place to end.

Director: John Boorman
Writers: John Boorman
Stars: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, David Thewlis Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton, Pat Shortt, Sinead Cusack, David Hayman
Runtime: 114 min
Country: Ireland, France, Romania

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

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