Deep Focus: Queen & Country
John Boorman’s Queen and Country, his sequel to Hope and Glory (87), is bracingly sane about war, peace, and young adulthood. In this engrossing autobiographical saga of life in Britain’s National Service at the time of the Korean War, Boorman’s surrogate in the comedy-drama, 19-year-old Bill Rohan (Callum Turner), exudes a smart, buoyant wariness. He registers the lunacy of rigid officers like Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) and out-of-control army rebels like his fellow Sergeant Instructor and close pal, Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones). Bill differs from the dreamy autobiographical figures we’ve come to know in movie memoirs like I Vitelloni and Diner. He’s already splitting away from home and family. His free-spirited older sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), runs back home from a bad marriage in Canada (she has two young kids), and asks Bill why he’s against everything: “The army, the war, royalty, the Tories, the class system, God, Dad’s patriotism.” She says she’s for “life, love, freedom, adventure,” but Bill ignores her breezy answer and deflects the question. He’s on his way to becoming a resolutely independent moviemaker.
Drawn largely from Boorman’s own experiences at an army training camp and Education Centre, Queen and Country is a portrait of the artist as a sly young man. Bill’s life is full of surprises. Boorman renders his adventures in a tragicomic spectrum that ranges from uproarious slapstick and domestic farce to seriocomic rebellion in the ranks, from a rollicking Peeping Tom prank to a poignant chivalric courtship, and from cheeky iconoclasm in a military classroom to pathos in a military hospital. Boorman, now 82, has rarely directed more fearlessly. He displays masterly command and élan as he mixes languid and staccato rhythms with lush or lowering atmospheres. In a typical offhand feat, he turns marching drills into musical-comedy choreography. He never loses sight of his overarching subject—the human comedy.
This film starts right where Hope and Glory ends, as children celebrate a day off from school, courtesy of a Nazi bomb. (“Thank you, Adolf!” proclaims one blissed-out boy.) It then leaps into 1952 and lands near the family bungalow known as Sphinx, on Pharaoh Island on the Thames at Shepperton. The house has no buzzer or phone. A visitor must ring an actual bell and wait for one of the Rohans to row a boat or punt across the river. We first see the grown-up Bill taking a dip and watching a Nazi officer fall dead in the water, repeatedly. A war film is being produced at neighboring Shepperton Studios. The idea that in movies, unlike in life, you can get something right by redoing it, exerts an inexorable pull on Bill. But nothing in this film feels labored. Almost immediately, Bill receives his call to duty, and his father, Clive (David Hayman, the only actor to repeat his role from the first film), pities the officers who must turn his callow boy into a man. At the barracks gates, Bill and Percy meet and swap the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” line from Casablanca. They’re soon under the thumbs of military personnel who pride themselves on defeating the Nazis and don’t understand why Bill and Percy would question the war in Korea. The whole film hinges on the conflict between the older generation’s patriotic sureness and the rising generation’s appetite for unvarnished truth and unrationed joy.
In the movie’s most inspired sequence, Bill recalls the brotherly love of the barracks as he chats and smokes with the woman of his dreams—nicknamed Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton)—in her Oxford University apartment. The flashback unfolds behind his chair, as if Bill is creating a short film for her. Twenty conscripts gather around a stove to dry off 20 cigarettes accidentally drenched in strawberry preserves. Each soldier then lights up with delight, including Bill, who’s never smoked before. He shares the intense camaraderie of his brothers-in-arms; they’re determined to wring a tobacco-lover’s victory from a puddle of fruit. As Bill spellbinds sad-eyed Ophelia, an upper-crust blonde with her own smoke-screen of mystery, Turner’s face registers undiluted joy over sharing this vision of male bonding with a beautiful, intelligent older woman. You can see why Boorman cast Turner as Bill: he’s canny, affecting, and anti-histrionic. More important, the staging, cutting, and performances suggest a wizardly director in the making—and confirm the intuitive brilliance that has marked Boorman’s filmmaking since he made Having a Wild Weekend some 50 years ago. How many writer-directors can do what Boorman does here? He summons an ensemble performance of heightened, shared emotion, then blocks, shoots, and cuts it to glide you into the group feeling. Boorman’s expansive talent reminds you of movies’ power as a popular art. He makes a score of cigarettes on a stovetop perimeter come off as a circle of life.
Queen and Country isn’t as engulfing as Hope and Glory, and it lacks the emotional completeness of that unassuming masterpiece. The earlier movie, about the Blitz as seen through 9-year-old Bill Rohan’s eyes, captured what Boorman had been seeking throughout his career—a quality of “found,” lived-in mythology. World War II had turned the United Kingdom into a dangerous and enchanting Magic Kingdom for lower-middle-class English youth. They reveled in proprieties falling by the wayside and new possibilities opening up amid the rubble. In Queen and Country, characters in flux stumble through a country in upheaval. The movie is more limited, visually and lyrically. Its characters grow by increments, often in tight corners. But it’s wise, unpretentious, and funny in a tough-minded way. And cinematographer Seamus Deasy’s collaboration with Boorman ranks with Philippe Rousselot’s in Hope and Glory. The men and women still seem lit by the sharpness or tenderness of the director’s memories.
Boorman retains the scruffy humor and grainy textures of the episodes he takes from his 2003 memoir, Adventures of a Suburban Boy, which include the risky filching of a regimental clock. The lived-in feeling of these anecdotes allows Boorman to bring his characters into adulthood without inflating typical coming-of-age traumas: first love, private betrayal, and public shaming. Rather than being sent to fight in Korea, both Bill and Percy are assigned to teach conscripts how to type. Hapgood, a claustrophobe with a psychological secret, is driven crazy by army rules and regulations. He almost instantly vows to murder Sergeant Major Bradley, their immediate superior, a man so devoted to military tradition that he demands that students sit at attention while typing. Bill is more restrained. As the film makes clear, he isn’t a laggard or a coward. He simply has the sort of temperament that compels him to sift data and impressions before framing his version of the truth and committing to a plan of action. He sympathizes with Percy’s innate rebel spirit and is drawn to yet appalled by his extremism. When Bill stages his own mini-revolution, it’s a revolt of honesty. Ordered to lecture on Korea to his conscripts, he cobbles together pertinent observations from critical articles in The London Times, including the United Nations’ bungling of the demarcation between North and South, and the widespread fear that U.S. General Douglas MacArthur had gone crazy before being called home. When one pupil refuses to fight in Korea, Bill is charged with “seducing a soldier from the course of his duty.” His case even makes the daily papers, shaming his jingoistic dad.
The entire cast has a comic field day reacting to the wording of “seducing a soldier….” But the episode’s real value lies in Bill’s response to MI5 agents who press him on whether he sides with Communism or capitalism. Bill says he supports neither—a courageous stand in an era of dangerous certainties. His ability to maintain a natural distance while absorbing the world around him enables him to grapple with life-or-death intricacies. By the end he can be generous both to Percy and his nemesis, Bradley. As Percy, Caleb Landry Jones conjures a stripped-wire sensitivity that’s alternately wrenching and rib-tickling. This acting style wouldn’t work if Turner weren’t around to sop up his excesses. (Jones is a Texas boy who had a recurring role on NBC’s Friday Night Lights.) Thewlis gives the performance of the movie as Bradley. He lets you see the desperation behind his character’s monkish attachment to the army. In his memoir, Boorman writes that when 30 hands would “shunt back” the typewriter carriage, “the sound came pounding through the flimsy walls of the [Education] Centre like rifle shots.” With perfect audiovisual judgment and super-empathetic acting, Boorman and Thewlis put over Bradley’s reflexive, agonized twitch whenever he thinks he’s heard a fusillade, with just the right, fleeting emphasis. (Bill and Percy don’t seem to notice.) It’s a PTSD symptom before people knew how to spot one.
Some early reviews have criticized Queen and Country for being “a service comedy,” but the strength of Boorman’s film is that it reminds us of what a service comedy is—the spectacle of cogs rising up against their machine. This film’s military rogues’ gallery includes Commanding Officer Major Cross (Richard E. Grant), a pragmatic figurehead who wants his unit to run as silky-smooth as the figure he cuts at the Regimental Ball, and Regimental Sergeant Major Digby (Brian F. O’Byrne), who is pathologically protective of his rank and wishes that conscripts like Bill and Percy couldn’t rise high enough to eat at his table. He punishes them by serving curry so hot that it leaves them gasping. Along with Thewlis’s more complicated Bradley, these officers, simple in themselves, form a group character of considerable complexity, thanks to Grant’s gift of expressing ferocious boredom and O’Byrne’s grasp of bottomless sadism.
In a season when critics are quick to call any combat film “anti-war,” Queen and Country gets at the core of military horror. Private Redmond (Pat Shortt), a notorious “skiver” (a mix of wheedler, scrounger, and sneak thief), tells the boys that the army aims to brainwash soldiers into advancing toward machine guns instead of running away from them. In Redmond’s view, it’s brave to shake off that conditioning and be a coward. To both Redmond and Hapgood, a training camp is like a POW camp, with them as the prisoners, so thievery is one way of preserving their dignity. Still, Boorman won’t let Redmond off the hook. He’s a selfish, callous man, who mocks Bradley when he twitches. And Boorman doesn’t let audiences forget that there’s a war on. You may think Bill is being roguish when he advises recruits to get clothing from their families to protect them against Korea’s cold; he tells them that the British Army, unlike America’s, won’t provide weather-protective uniforms. His counsel proves tragically spot-on.
If the film’s view of romance were as barbed, poignant, and insightful as its take on the military, Queen and Country might have been a knockout. But Ophelia is too dreamy and abstract a figure. Bill doesn’t fight for her when she drifts away. He too readily accepts the kindness of a warm-blooded nurse. Apart from some happy, ribald byplay at the nurse’s window, the film’s peak amorous moment comes when Bill’s mom, Grace (beautifully played by Sinead Cusack), waves wistfully from afar at the lover she had during the Blitz. All they can do to celebrate their love is perform this ritual once a day.
In one of this film’s high points, Bill and Ophelia see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. He’s blown away by the technique of telling a single story from three disparate points of view. She thinks the director’s point is that in all three versions, a woman has been raped. Boorman, like Kurosawa, is a virtuoso and a humanist. While younger directors prove their talents by unfolding entire stories as if in a single shot, Boorman, with greater ease, does something more exhilarating. He uses every tool in a director’s kit to bring audiences inside all his characters.
Queen and Country ends with a close-up of Bill’s wind-up camera. It keeps filming after Bill jumps in the water to be with his postwar love. Though this film is a realistic comedy-drama, Boorman remains one of cinema’s last great mystics. He believes that a camera creates everlasting moments even when a director isn’t looking. </p>