Films by ace British director John Boorman are relatively rare, making them all the more eagerly anticipated. They usually center on varying themes of violent action (Point Blank, Zardoz), laced with underlying machismo sensitivity (Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance), and often disguised as historic parables (Excalibur, Memoirs of Hadrian).
The latest is Queen and Country, a sequel to his phenomenally successful 1987 film Hope and Glory, about the acclaimed director’s childhood memories of the London Blitz and the friendlier environs on an island in the Thames accessible only by boat, where his family sent him to escape the dangers of war. Outside the major artery of John Boorman films, it’s a deeply personal memoir, so well written and carefully observed that it draws the viewer into the ambience of postwar England with a persuasive power that makes you feel you’re part of the same experience.
QUEEN AND COUNTRY ★★★
Written and directed by: John Boorman
Queen and Country, set nine years after the war, continues Mr. Boorman’s story to 1952 when he was 18 and forced to serve two years in the military. Once again he appears as his alter ego, Bill Rohan (played by lanky, charismatic Callum Turner), who arrives at boot camp and immediately bonds with the feisty, irresponsible troublemaker Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones).
Instead of being shipped off after basic training to the action in South Korea, the boys are relegated to a humiliating office job as typing instructors, fueling their hatred of—and engaging them in a constant battle with—all of their irritating commanding officers, but especially mean-spirited Sgt. Major Bradley (a delightfully boorish David Thewlis), a strict enforcer of outmoded and irrelevant rules and disciplines.
In the course of his punishment in camp, Bill also manages to discover and reveal the mistakes made by the U.S. and England in what he calls an “immoral war.” One of the soldiers ordered to attend his lectures turns out to be the son of a left-wing Labour Party MP who then refused to go to Korea because of Bill’s denouncement of General Douglas MacArthur, causing no end of trouble. At the same time, Percy steals the camp’s cherished antique clock, disrupting order and respect for chain of command, and plunging the camp into total chaos.
In addition to mischief, the boys also take time out from politics to experience romance. Bill becomes infatuated with a neurotic beauty he meets at a concert (Tamsin Egerton), then betrays Percy by sleeping with his girl, a war nurse played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards, while Percy falls for Bill’s sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), who, at the end of Hope and Glory, gave birth to a baby, disgraced the family and moved to Canada. Now, leaving her two kids in Canada, she returns to England with bottle-blonde hair, an American accent and a wild amalgam of opinions, fashions and social outrages (skinny-dipping with the guys, smoking furiously) that symbolize the Hollywood glamour Bill and Percy have been seeing in films by Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock.
Mr. Boorman is admirably adept at chronicling characters and events of a special time and place when young postwar Brits were beginning to challenge their country’s ideas of royalty and regime. The movie also takes place during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, which Bill’s family watches on a new fad called television. The pomp and pageantry in black and white newsreel footage, juxtaposed with the colorful challenges of real life, ushers in a fresh disdain for tradition, the class system and the kind of patriotism Bill’s family always stood for. One great scene shows Bill’s grandfather watching the coronation and sniffing: “They’re all Germans. The Kaiser was Queen Victoria’s nephew. Now they call themselves Windsor. Windsor, my ass! Windsor is a brown suit or a way to knot your tie, not a royal line.”
Between star-crossed relationships gone wrong and Percy’s court martial that sends him to military prison, there’s the inconvenient timing of the coronation to distract the characters in Mr. Boorman’s tautly constructed narrative from a changing world beyond the Thames. The acting is uniformly colorful and succinct, from the terrific younger cast to the fine contributions by such veterans as John Standing, Sinead Cusack, Brian F. O’Byrne and Richard E. Grant. It might prove to be too insular to appeal to a wider movie audience, but to a passionate Anglophile like me, Queen and Country is a funny and nostalgic portrait of a bleak, rationed postwar England still digging its way out of the rubble.