'Queen and Country': Cannes Review
It's taken 27 years, but John Boorman finally delivers a follow-up to 'Hope and Glory' with this muted snapshot of life in early '50s Britain.
Rambling and unfocused but not without its moments, John Boorman’s 19th feature film, Queen and Country, represents a very belated sequel to the director’s 1987 feature Hope and Glory, Boorman’s semi-autobiographical tale about a family surviving WWII and the Blitz in suburban London. Set this time in 1952, Queen and Country follows a now 18-year-old Billy Rohan (watchable newcomer Callum Turner), the protagonist of Hope and Boorman's stand-in, as he starts his mandatory stint in the British Army. Given that it’s comprised of episodic mini-dramas that don’t quite hang together about characters who aren’t particularly interesting, the film remains a disappointment whose flaws will only be magnified by a premiere at Cannes. Commercially, Queen and Country's best bet is to round up silver-haired cineastes, especially in the U.K., and other viewers with fond memories of Hope and Glory.
A few opening scenes establish that the Billy is still living with his parents, Clive (David Hayman, reprising his role from Hope) and Grace (Sinead Cusack, a wan replacement for a sparky Sarah Miles in the earlier film). The family has gone up in the world, now with their own pretty bungalow on an island in the Thames in leafy suburban Twickenham. Older sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) is over in Canada, now an unhappily married mother of two.
Bill is soon drafted, and finds himself temperamentally ill-suited to military life due to his anti-authority streak. But luckily for him, his intelligence is recognized and he’s kept on at the base as an instructor for soldiers about to ship out on much more dangerous missions in Korea and other hot spots around the globe. He soon befriends roguish troublemaker Percy (Caleb Landry Jones, whose hammy antics belong in an altogether different film). Together they team up with self-proclaimed “skiver” (Brit slang for 'slacker') Pvt. Redmond (Pat Shortt) to find innovative ways to annoy their superiors, especially stiff martinet Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis).
While on leave, Bill becomes besotted with a troubled beauty whom he dubs Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a posh girl with a deep depressive streak. The swan-necked Egerton has shown a knack for comedy in other films like Chalet Girl, but she is miscast here and the whole subplot involving her feels flat and tired. Things pick up a bit when Bill goes home on leave to his family and reconnects with his sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby, who brings needed heat and immediacy to all her scenes), but there’s no thematic through line connecting the domestic stories with the action on the base. Elsewhere, Richard E. Grant is typecast as a toff officer.
Although the plot here more or less stands on its own, viewers won’t really pick up on certain emotional frequencies, like the fissures in Bill’s parents’ marriage, if they haven’t seen Hope and Glory recently. Both the characters and the film itself (via flashbacks using 1987-vintage footage) harken back nostalgically to the Blitz, remembering it as a time of stress and fear but also one of excitement that the becalmed, dowdily dressed, economically deprived early 1950s just can’t compete with. Indeed, given that both the era and the events depicted are so dull, one can’t help but wonder why Boorman felt such a need to cover this chapter in his life story, especially since it’s rumored that this may be his last film. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Queen and Country ends with Bill Rohan taking his first steps towards becoming a filmmaker. How much more interesting would it have been to see that story unfold, especially considering the fact so few films have used the British film industry in the 1950s as a backdrop.
The craft contributions look somewhat pinched by a tight budget, but Boorman and director of photography Seamus Deasy occasionally pull a beautiful shot out of the bag, recalling the director’s glory days as a visual stylist.
Production: Merlin Films
Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, David Thewlis, Richard E. Grant, Tamsin Egerton, Vanessa Kirby, David Hayman, Sinead Cusack, Pat Shortt
Director: John Boorman
Screenwriter: John Boorman
Producers: Kieran Corrigan, John Boorman
Executive producers: Mary Alleguen, Cristian Bostanescu
Co-producers: Anne-Laure Labadie, Jean Labadie, Vlad Paunescu
Director of photography: Seamus Deasy
Editor: Ron Davis
Music: Stephen McKeon
Sales: Le Pacte
No rating, 115 minutes