DIR/WRI: John Boorman • PRO: John Boorman, Kieran Corrigan • DOP: Seamus Deasy • ED: Ron Davis • DES: Tim Pannen • MUS: Stephen McKeon • DES: Anthony Pratt • CAST: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat Shortt
It has been almost 28 years since John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical work Hope and Glory (1987) brought us the story of nine year old Bill Rohan’s life during World War II. Boorman’s sequel Queen and Country opens in 1951 and we again meet Bill, now aged 18, as he is conscripted into the British Army against the backdrop of the Korean war.
Boorman’s film is beautifully shot and brings the period faithfully to life, conveying the dread, frustration and resentment resulting from the obligation of two years national service on the part of young men.
Callum Turner’s performance as Bill is consistently engaging, as is that of David Thewlis in the role of Bradley, a to-the-letter army man railing against the insubordination he encounters from the conscripts. Indeed, it appears intended for Bradley to initially evoke derision, but I often found myself out in sympathy with him.
Bill’s roommate Percy Hapgood is a striking character, if only for the fact that both he and the exaggerated nature of Caleb Landry Jones’ performance appeared somewhat at odds with the rest of the film. There is no doubt Percy is unhinged, and this makes the strength of his friendship with the sensitive, gently humorous Bill hard, at times, to fully invest in.
While the film does offer something of a window on post-war peacetime Britain, most of the action takes place in the barracks where Bill and Percy get into scrapes with varying consequences and often with the help of skiver and trickster Redmond, performed brilliantly by the exquisite Pat Shortt. They rarely leave it, and when they do, there is a limited glimpse of the world outside, thus conveying the claustrophobic nature of their young lives. In such instances, the drama centres mainly on their attempts to woo members of the opposite sex and these are scenes which prove endearing.
There is an interesting conflict between the senior army personnel’s vision of nation, war and military service and those of Bill in particular which adds weight to the proceedings. Despite the military subject matter, the film is bathed in a nostalgia which, while aesthetically pleasing, when combined with efforts to make the work comedic, tends to dilute the gravitas of some of its more tense moments. The film is, however, bookended with two meta-scenes in which a camera is seen shooting footage on the Thames, reminding us that what we are seeing is a dramatisation.
While the humour and nostalgic ambience are there, and identification is fostered via the notable use of close-ups which work effectively as portraiture and encourage an intimacy with the characters, it is regretful that this film left me feeling rather detached from it. Individual performances from those such as Richard E. Grant (Major Cross), David Hayman, who reprises his role as Clive Rohan, and the aforementioned Callum Turner and Pat Shortt were excellent, but when looked at as a whole, I felt the piece didn’t entirely hang together as it could.
Unwarranted spontaneous and exhuberant laughter, Percy’s often jester-like performativity, and the oscillation on the part of the military between farcical silliness and faithful adherence to military mores sometimes jarred, though perhaps these incongruities are easier accepted if viewed from the perspectives of the young Bill and Percy.
The pleasures of Queen and Country lie in its beauty, its performances, its privileging of personal perspectives and its gentle look at a period in British history which is seldom portrayed.
This film was reviewed on behalf of Film Ireland.