Queen and Country, film review: a lovely post-war reminiscence

Amid the comedy,  there is a sense of yearning for lost youth running through the film

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Queen and Country is John Boorman’s belated sequel to his autobiographical Hope and Glory (1987). The first film was based on his experiences growing up in the London suburbs during the Blitz. The new one starts in 1952, just as Boorman’s fictional alter ego Bill Rohan is about to begin his National Service. By then, his family had moved to a house on the river Thames, near Shepperton Film Studios.

This may be Boorman’s last feature. In his 80s, the English director has returned to the period of his own early adulthood. In writing the screenplay, he has acknowledged drawing heavily on journals he kept as a teenager. The film may be a self-consciously nostalgic rites-of-passage story but it’s a very lively and witty one, which casts light on a grim period in recent British social history.

Most Boorman movies are strong on action and have a mythical undertow. They’re set in jungles (The Emerald Forest), or in a dystopian future (Zardoz), or involve crime and violence. Even Hope and Glory had references to King Arthur and the Round Table. Queen and Country is more muted than such predecessors. It’s about soldiers but this isn’t a Lee Marvin-style war film in which we see characters enduring traumatic experiences on the frontline. The only action sequence, in which a Nazi officer flees into the river, is “make believe,” shot by a film crew on the Thames as Bill watches with boyish curiosity.

Instead of battle scenes, Boorman offers us the purgatorial world of National Service as endured by conscripts behind the lines. They’re the raw material being fed into a glorified sausage machine. Rohan (Callum Turner) turns up at the barracks for what he thinks is six weeks of intensive training before he will be shipped off to Korea to “fight the might of the Red Army”. In the event, he is given a job as a sergeant “typing instructor” and forced to stay in the camp, working with his equally bored friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) as they teach recruits by making them hammer out lines such as “The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog” on their keyboards.

Boorman goes to exhaustive lengths to capture the tedium of life in boot camp. As a conscript, Rohan has little motivation. The fight against Hitler is long since over and his careful reading of The Times has convinced him of the cynicism behind the Cold War. He is caught in a very British, very bureaucratic madhouse.The camp is full of sadistic, non-commissioned officers who insist on absolute conformity to army rules. The worst of these, in an affecting performance from David Thewlis, is Sergeant Bradley. He is a Pooter-ish figure, comical but also forlorn in his attempts to enforce discipline. It’s as if he feels that the slightest lapse, even something as insignificant as a top button undone, will unleash cosmic chaos.

Queen and Country has some of the knockabout feel of old British sitcoms or Leslie Thomas’s The Virgin Soldiers. There is a lot of exaggerated saluting. Richard E Grant mugs it up enjoyably as the exasperated company commander Major Cross, pulling faces and looking ever more sorry for himself as he goes through the motions of administering disciplinary rules he himself clearly feels to be absurd. Pat Shortt is equally funny as Private Redmond, a malingerer who takes skiving to a truly heroic level. Boorman spends considerable time depicting the theft of a regimental clock and the NCOs’ desperate attempts to retrieve it.

Just occasionally, the conscripts enjoy themselves against their better instincts. Rohan both grumbles and rhapsodises about square-bashing drill manoeuvres. “When we got it right, it was exhilarating. It was like a dance troupe.” He also clearly relishes the camaraderie.

Amid the comedy, Boorman makes trenchant points about British social attitudes. The class system has a stultifying effect on the protagonists here. There is also a sense of yearning running through the film, a regret that Rohan feels about his lost youth. This is brought out both in the occasional use of voiceover and in Stephen McKeon’s elegiac music. We are always aware that the events being depicted are long in the past.

Boorman depicts Rohan’s courtship of the beautiful and aristocratic “Ophelia” in a subtle but barbed fashion. The first time he sees her, at a classical music concert where he and Percy try to pick up girls, he is smitten. Boorman shows her in a lambent close-up that makes her look like a 1940s Hollywood star. Rohan’s fascination isn’t just with her beauty or sophistication (she is an “older woman,” all of 24) but with what she represents. Rohan is a middle-class Londoner and she is aristocratic. He seems blind to her neuroses and selfishness. In the class-conscious Britain of 1952, there are barriers between them which simply can’t be crossed.

Queen and Country was partly shot in Romania for budgetary reasons. In terms of scope, it is on a far smaller scale than Hope and Glory but it does a thorough job in recreating the look and mindsets of early 1950s England. Meticulous attention is paid to everything from the slang (references to being as “crooked as a nine bob note”) to the Pelican books Percy reads, the “milk bar” where the soldiers take their girlfriends and the flickering Bush TV on which Rohan and his family watch the Coronation.

The scenes by the Thames were filmed in Boorman’s old family home. It is typical of his approach that he combines moments of humdrum social observation with flights of lyricism, often involving the river. This is a deeply personal film which also stands as an intriguing record of a period not often revisited in film – that drab period postwar and pre-Suez in which the country itself, like the flailing young hero Rohan, is struggling to define itself.

John Boorman, 116 mins Starring: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Tamsin Egerton, David Thewlis