Boorman provides a well executed sequel to his Oscar-nominated Home & Glory, but never quite reaches the same emotional depth, despite making some astute social and historical points. The film is an utter joy but with no real conflict.
Queen & Country is the highly anticipated sequel to 1987’s Hope & Glory, directed by John Boorman which was nominated for a total of five Oscars. Boorman continues his autobiographical series with a leap of ten years; the blitz now being over and young Billy now all grown up and played by the rather stoic but oddly charming Callum Turner. Bill and his best friend Percy – a roustabout ginger posho perplexingly miscast as antic Texan actor Caleb Landry Jones – while away their days making mischief and chasing girls around town.
But the war in Korea is looming and its time for these boys to become men and join the army. We follow the boys though basic training, and it is this army camp where the majority of the film takes place, except when Bill returns to his home on a little island in the middle of the River Thames.
The film’s a gentle pleasure, going nowhere particularly fast; short episodes revolve around the likes of cigarettes drowned in strawberry jam and other strange occurrences. The only pivotal narrative incident is a carefully plotted heist, for sheer larks, of a regimental clock in the mess hall. Though we perhaps expect Bill to be shipped off to Korea, it never happens: he’s involved in training corps cadets with Percy. Caleb Landry Jones has moments of strong personality but never crafts it to the point of true emotional depth.
The supporting cast, however, is a trove of pointedly comic character playing: Pat Shortt is a hoot as the irreverent, cowardly and ageing Private Redmond, Brían F. O’Byrne remains irascible and equally funny as his pompous regimental sergeant major, against whom the clock-nicking is partly targeted. David Thewlis, looking eerily like Arthur Lowe in Dad’s Army, is a by-the-book sergeant major, maddened by war and obsessed with protocol; Richard E Grant is the aptly titled Major Cross, the weary bureaucrat in charge of them all; and there’s one great scene for Julian Wadham, as an exasperated court-martial judge who just wants the whole thing over with.
Boorman has written and cast these roles with a twinkle in his eye, but no one gets caught playing to the gallery; the film’s visually a little pedestrian, but it’s not dull-witted. You feel as if you’re travelling through it but never fully seeing everything. Queen and Country takes shape as an institutional comedy in the boisterous British tradition of Porridge, though its closest filmic model might be the 1988 Mike Nichols version of Neil Simon’s conscript-training romp Biloxi Blues. While well formed, it never quite grabs that emotional depth of Hope & Glory’s focus on the family dynamic during war-time Britain, and perhaps this is due to the historic time period of the setting.
Above all, it’s a sincerely personal piece for Boorman, who relishes the chance to revisit the key moments of his film-buff education, and indeed life education. When Bill and the girl he’s wooing (Tamsin Egerton) emerge from Kurosawa’s Rashomon, she interrupts his geeky enthusiasm for the film’s famous multiple perspectives with the entirely fair comment that, in every version, “the woman’s always raped.” Egerton proves she’s more than a scheming, giggling place holder in this film and truly makes her stand-out performance.
There are other, precise and period-appropriate nods, to Sunset Boulevard and Strangers on a Train. It’s almost a given that Boorman will end his film with the shot of a camera whirring on the Shepperton riverbank, an obsession of his own fast falling into place.
Admittedly modest, but the epitome of jolly, this is like the companionable second volume of an autobiography in film form; you’ll whip through it in no time, and come out wanting more.
Queen and Country (2014), directed by John Boorman, is released on DVD and Blu-ray disc in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye. Certificate 15.