A sequel to his Oscar-nominated Hope And Glory, John Boorman’s semi-autobiographic Queen and Country finds all fair in love and war.
Testament Of Youthby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Nearly 30 years later and John Boorman has returned to his cinematic autobiography with the long anticipated sequel to his critically acclaimed Hope And Glory. But while his previous Academy Award nominated hit was a World War II movie with a difference – the Blitz from a boy’s eye view and doused liberally in unsentimental humour – Queen and Country has the rather more onerous task of capturing that first flush of youth – the heady days of first love, army training camp and Coronation Britain. And while there’s an incredible likeness between Sebastian Rice-Edwards in Hope And Glory and Callum Turner in Queen And Country, only David Hayman of the original cast remains, with Sinéad Cusack stepping in as Bill’s mother and John Standing taking over from the late Ian Bannen as the curmudgeonly grandfather. Time has marched on, and while the faces may have changed, what about the attitudes of Queen and Country?
School’s out. It’s 1952, seven years after the end of the Second World War and Bill, now 19, has been conscripted into the British Army, called up to serve in the Korean War. Bill’s roomed together with live-wire Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), and it’s not long before the ragamuffin privates are upgraded to sergeants, filling in as typing teachers for the army rules stickler Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). Verbally abused by RSM Digby (Brían F. O’Byrne), Percy falls in with Irish skiver Redmond (Pat Shortt), plotting to steal the company clock, while Bill pursues a mysterious Oxbridge beauty (Tamsin Egerton), who he nicknames Ophelia, suffering from suicidal depression and trapped in a loveless romance. Staging a conflict in the mess, Percy and Bill manage to get Bradley removed, but when Bill delivers an orientation on the conflict in Korea, based on snippets from the Times, he soon comes into conflict with Major Cross (Richard E. Grant) and the whole of MI5.
Just as Hope And Glory ends with Billy returning by car with his grandpa past a film crew shooting at Pharaoh’s Island, the hint of a career beckoning, Queen and Country is rife with cinematic allusions, with Casablanca and another film shoot referenced in the first five minutes. The barrage continues thick and fast with Jane Wyman, Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd namedropped while Bill and Ophelia take in Kurosawa’s Rashomon at the pictures. Like the fireworks of the Blitz, cinema remains a constant fascination for Boorman, both in the past and the present, and here also finding shape in the new-fangled glamour of the small-screen, as the family sit down to watch the Queen’s coronation. It’s just a shame all those war films of the intervening years, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket or even The Imitation Game seem to have passed him by.
Like Hope And Glory, there’s a very gentle honesty to Queen And Country – an amiable quasi-autobiography free from artifice. But its cinematography, production design and script are anchored in the ‘80s, as corporal capers play alongside hackneyed storylines of mysterious females and first romance. The realities of war seem very distant, partly due to its home counties location, and the fact that war doesn’t in fact command a starring role in Boorman’s sequel, Queen And Country not so much a rallying cry as an attempt to find in peacetime a meaning to existence after the hope and glory of the battlefield. As such, Boorman’s film functions largely as a rather lumbering coming-of-age drama that spends most of its time down cul-de-sacs of stolen clocks and femmes fatales, rather than focusing on a generation’s existential quest for meaning – the strand of this 1950s brave new world that feels most relevant to the here and now.
Equally restrained, the characterisation in Queen And Country is nebulous at best, and while we may (at a push) infer from Hope And Glory that Bill is the kind of educated boy who reads the Times and watches Japanese cinema, we have no real idea who his comrades are or where they come from. Instead, Queen And County focuses on performance. And while no-one besides Callum Turner really has the chance to shine, Richard E Grant and David Thewlis lend a welcome comic verve to proceedings while Caleb Landry Jones turns in a curiously psychotic performance as the calibanesque Sergeant Hapgood. As a sequel to Hope And Glory, Queen And Country is fine, just perhaps 30 years too late; with a broad-stroke characterisation and a crude plotting that now seems, at best, outdated and, at worst, lazy in its rehashed storytelling and unchallenged prejudices. There are glimmers of originality in its dashing portrait of Fifties’ Britain and postwar conscription, but even these now modish twin pillars can’t stop Queen And Country from feeling lost in another time.
Queen and Country is released on 5th June 2015 in the UK