Queen and Country
Directed by John Boorman
Opens February 18 at Film Forum
Once more unto the breach for writer-director John Boorman, who revisits the semiautobiographical characters from his superb WWII dramedy Hope and Glory (1987) in the beautifully bittersweet Queen and Country. It’s been almost ten years since young Bill Rohan, Boorman’s onscreen alter ego, gleefully witnessed his elementary school destroyed by one of Adolf Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombers. Now it’s 1952 and eighteen-year-old Bill (played by the fetching, charismatic Callum Turner) is conscripted for two years’ mandatory service in the British Army, which is currently embroiled in the war in Korea. Not that he’ll see any action: Barring the occasional leave, Bill is assigned to a gated-in boot camp where he lectures prospective recruits alongside his troublemaking pal Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) and does battle with several stuck-up authority figures, from the PTSD-suffering Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) to the growling taskmaster RSM Digby (Brían F. O’Byrne).
There’s a lady, too: Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a mysterious dream woman who our lovestruck protagonist pursues against all odds, and who Boorman shoots with the same mythical gauziness as Helen Mirren’s Morgana in Excalibur (1981). Fantasy has always played a crucial role in Boorman’s cinema, though it’s especially affecting here (as it was in Hope and Glory) because it carries the weight of lived experience. This is the now 82-year-old filmmaker casting a hard glance back at himself through a deceptively whimsical lens. There’s never a moment when Queen and Country isn’t a joy to watch, as infectiously giddy in its way as the elaborate prank Percy orchestrates involving a Queen Victoria-owned antique clock. But there’s real sadness underlying even the gentlest scenes; a whole movie could be made about Bill’s free-spirited expat sister (Vanessa Kirby), whose status quo-deflating eccentricity goes hand-in-hand with her unspoken anguish about the many irritations, but also the relative stability, of family and tradition.
There’s a longing in the film that isn’t quite rose-tinted nostalgia—more a yearning for a moment when there was plenty of time to waste on frivolous things and the future could sort itself out. The final passages of Queen and Country are among the most moving Boorman has ever directed because they have the feel of a valediction, a great artist saying goodbye not only to his youth, but to all the ups, downs and in-betweens that followed.