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Categories: Movie Reviews

Cameron Johnson reviews John Boorman’s latest film “Queen and Country”, the sequel to his acclaimed 1987 drama “Hope and Glory” that doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor but nonetheless presents an entertaining view of history you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.

QUEEN AND COUNTRY Unless you’ve seen John Boorman’s 1987 World War II drama Hope and Glory, his new film Queen and Country might leave you incredibly confused. As a standalone film, it’s an entertaining dramedy about a passionate youth, Bill (Callum Turner), who’s drafted into the British army during the Korean War, but appreciating its idiosyncrasies is far easier once you’ve seen its Oscar-nominated predecessor.

I learned this the hard way by seeing Queen and Country first without any prior knowledge – beyond surface details – about Hope and Glory. On first viewing, Queen and Country entertained me, but I was bewildered by the sporadic, unconventional movements of the plot and the eccentricities of its characters. Only once I had gone back and watched Hope and Glory – a film I absolutely loved – did I come to fully appreciate Queen and Country.

Hope and Glory, in a nutshell, is the story of the London Blitz of World War II, told through the eyes and ears of an optimistic, complicated family, the Rohans. Center of the story is the 10-year-old Billy Rohan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards), a happy-go-lucky, innocent child who is more awestruck by the bombings than he is scared by them. Billy joins a gang of mischievous young boys who scour the demolished streets for stray bullets and shrapnel, and is excited when his school is bombed by the Germans (this moment, in which a friend of Bill’s shouts “thank you Adolf!” in celebration, also appears at the start of Queen and Country).  hopeandglory1 Hope and Glory also introduced us to Bill’s parents, Grace (Sarah Miles) and Clive (David Hayman) as well as his two sisters Dawn (Sammi Davis) and Sue (Geraldine Muir). Grace does her best to look after the children alone after Clive is drafted into the war effort – he’s given a boring desk job far away from the action – and she refuses to let them leave London, instead opting to rely on their house’s bomb shelter for their protection during the nightly raids. To add to the drama, the 15-year-old Dawn becomes pregnant after an affair with a Canadian soldier, and is forced into a rushed marriage.

But despite all the literal and figurative bombshells, the Rohans pull through and survive the war, positive attitudes in tact. In fact, it’s heavily insinuated that the war actually improved the Rohans’ lives. For one, the eventual loss of their house to a fire (ironically, it’s nothing to do with the bombings) leads them to move in with Grace’s parents on a serene little island surrounded by lush trees and a gorgeous river. On this island, Billy and the rest of his family are able to connect and enjoy each others’ company more than ever before, and become a quirky little unit of wit, patriotism, and optimism. It’s a happy, funny tale that runs in spite of the horrific events plaguing the world around the Rohans.

Flash forward 9 years where we meet Billy once again in Queen and Country, now referred to as “Bill” and a curious, spirited young adult who’s been conscripted to join the army to train for Korean War. Bill – now played by Callum Turner – is innocent as ever, looking at life as if it was an old romantic epic and still fascinated by the grandiose stories he watches at the cinema (in Hope and Glory he was even more fascinated by war films than by the war itself, and here he mentions everything from Casablanca to Strangers On a Train as analogies to his own life). QUEEN-AND-COUNTRY-Movie-Still-for-WebsiteBill is sent to a closed-off army facility to begin his training, and what’s instantly striking is the machismo of the commanding officers that train the conscripts. We jump into a world of confronting and yelling, screaming and swearing, belittling and badmouthing, watching the officers order around a group of clumsy, nonchalant kids to try to get them as ordered and disciplined as possible. It feels farcical from the start; we almost never see the boys train to do anything you’d expect to see on the battlefield, and everything seems more aimed at striking fear and obedience into these young men then actually preparing them for war.

Amongst Bill’s superiors are Digby (Brían F. O’Byrne), who cares more about the regiment’s prized clock – a gift from Queen Victoria – more than anything else, to the point that he puts all operations on standby in a fit of anxiety when the clock is taken away for cleaning without his knowing. Then there’s Bradley (David Thewlis), the fiery officer overseeing Bill’s regiment who has the gazillion-page army rulebook completely memorized, reporting them to his superiors for minor infractions such as leaving a button undone. In charge of everything is Major Cross (Richard E. Grant), who on the outside is the most reasonable – he’s as annoyed by Bradley’s scrutiny of the rules as anyone – but nonetheless becomes ruthless when scandals arise.

All of these officers initially seem like caricatures, totalitarian vessels for Bill and friends to push back at, and the characters do work in that regard. But in developing plot arcs between Bill and each of these officers, Boorman is able to empathize with each character, revealing the motivation and humanity behind their personas. Most tragic of all is Bradley, acted to perfection by David Thewlis, whose performance is a masterclass in posture and annunciation. The secret to Bradley’s strict constructionism of the army rules is too pivotal to spoil here, and leads to the film’s most powerful scene. a37a30e8b74068d4aebd2957775a3aa7 Central to Queen and Country is Bill’s friendship with the outlandish Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), his roommate and partner in crime in a variety of wacky schemes. The film intersperses Bill and Percy’s training – and running a class to teach recruits typing – with strange, passionate encounters between the two in their quarters in which they have poetic arguments about fighting back against the establishment and even killing their superiors. Often these encounters feel out-of-place – they’re tonally quite different from the rest of the film – but they’re an entertaining watch nonetheless, and an excellent way to show off the film’s gorgeously dramatic lighting. Another section of the film explores the love lives of Bill and Percy, whose escapades with a pair of nurses they meet accentuate their need to enjoy themselves within the strict parameters of their existence.

Bill, nonetheless, is more interested in the mysterious Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), who he sees at a concert and is instantly enamored by (she literally glows yellow the first time he sees her – you can decide for yourself if that’s cheesy or funny). Unfortunately, it’s unrequited love – Ophelia’s not even her real name – and he becomes more of a symbol of her desire to leave her abusive relationship with her fiancee than an actual love interest. At first glance this romance doesn’t seem to be necessary in the overall arc of the film, but looking back it’s an interesting study of the two characters’ world views – she’s hopelessly pessimistic and too scared to risk changing the bad aspects of her life, and he’s more optimistic, looking for love and adventure no matter how hard times become.

Listing all the subplots of Queen and Country can be quite exhausting, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is a very packed film. I’ve not yet mentioned the film’s middle section, in which Bill returns to his family’s “island” home and reunites with his sister (now played by Vanessa Kirby), who’s somewhat uncomfortably touchy-feely around her brother (the post, with the two people about to kiss, is actually these siblings). Before seeing Hope and Glory, this act felt a bit surreal – I was confused as to why all these random exchanges were happening between Bill and his family – but watching the prequel gave me some clarification. Once again, it’s not as much about the setting or the plot or even the time in history, but about the Rohan family and their ability to find happiness within the hardest of times. They’re a weird bunch and we laugh at their eccentricities, but we kinda wish we could be them. Oh, and that island home. Gorgeous. queen-and-countryWhat Queen and Country ultimately adds up to is a bit of a jumbled mess of entertaining subplots that makes a lot more sense when juxtaposed with its predecessor. It’s sometimes hard to understand the direction in which some of the characters are supposed to go, but each actor provides sufficient energy to keep us watching. Callum Turner as Bill is the kind, smart, relatable everyman at the center, who’s not afraid to laugh at the idiosyncrasies of his commanding officers, but isn’t quite as disobedient as Percy, whose plots put them both in an increasingly great deal of trouble.  Caleb Landry-Jones’ performance as Percy might annoy some – the American-born actor’s attempt at a sort of macho “hurrah!” English accent is strange to say the least – but he certainly gives a memorable performance.

The film is also brilliantly, if relatively conventionally, shot, and excels at period details from the costumes to the set design to the music choices. Stephen McKeon’s score is an enchanting mix of harmonious pianos and violins, softly carrying us through Bill’s dreamlike journey. This is a fully romantic piece, exaggerating every characteristic and providing stark contrast and textured mystery, but it’s rarely overbearing because the overall energy of the film is guided by the effortlessly relaxed attitude of the Rohans, and it’s an energy that hearkens back, or continues from, Hope and Glory. It’s an energy that, Bill learns, can help us survive history.

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Posted on Jul 6, 2015

One Response to ““Queen and Country” revisits the optimistic spirit of “Hope and Glory””
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  1. Avatar Taya Mackenzie says:

    Any word on why Sue isn’t in Queen & Country. I haven’t seen it (literally popping it in the DVD player right now) but my mother has seen it and she says Sue isn’t present or mentioned at all. Wondered why that is?

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