In 1987, John Boorman wrote and directed “Hope and Glory,” a semiautobiographical comedy about a 9-year-old boy and his family surviving the London Blitz. In its most unsettlingly audacious scene, young Billy looks at his rubble of a schoolhouse and offers up grateful thanks to “Adolf.”
Now, at age 82, Boorman has given us “Queen and Country,” a far less audacious sequel, set in 1952. Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) lives with his family in a comfy bungalow on the Thames near the famed Shepperton movie studio. Conscripted into military service, he avoids being shipped to Korea by being appointed a sergeant instructor, along with his rowdy friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), in charge of teaching the other recruits typing and map-reading. His chief nemesis: Sergeant Major Bradley, a by-the-book martinet played with snarly high dudgeon by David Thewlis.
The military sequences are mostly standard-issue boot-camp high jinks, enjoyable but also somewhat impersonal. “Hope and Glory” was clearly a movie Boorman ached to make. “Queen and Country,” although also semiautobiographical, lacks that earlier film’s throb of elation.
Still, as wildly enjoyable as it was, I had my problems with “Hope and Glory.” To me, it seemed psychologically false to present the boy’s experience of the Blitz in such carefree, cavalier terms. Surely his exhilaration must have been tempered by great underlying terror? That film was like a nostalgic fantasy of what the young Boorman might have wished the Blitz to be. But who knows? Perhaps this is how things really were for him; not all survivors are created equal.
The disappointment of “Queen and Country” is that the 18-year-old Bill doesn’t seem connected to that 9-year-old urchin. He’s a strait-laced, dutiful young man with an ever so slightly impish streak. This is not enough to hold the screen, and pretty soon the supporting players take over: not only Thewlis and Landry Jones as the wheedly Percy, but also Pat Shortt as Private Redmond, a dough-faced recruit who is constantly devising new ways to escape exertion, and Richard E. Grant, doing his best stiff-upper-lip bit as the company major. (A subplot involving Bill and a drearily mysterious blonde, played by Tamsin Egerton, could have been dispensed with.) When the film moves away from the barracks and back to Bill’s family home in its last – and best – section, Vanessa Kirby, as Bill’s flouncy sister, brings to the proceedings a much-needed jolt of adrenaline.
Taken on its own terms, “Queen and Country,” without reference to “Hope and Glory,” is a reasonably pleasant excursion, with some fine and funny character bits. But it also seems like a way station en route to the film Boorman probably hopes he can make next: Bill’s introduction, hinted at here, into the world of moviemaking. Boorman can’t get altogether excited about Bill in the barracks, and it shows up in his moviemaking, which is uncharacteristically staid. At his best Boorman is one of the great stylists. English directors, even the best of them, tend to be visually unadventurous. Boorman is the exception. In such films as “Point Blank,” “Deliverance,” “Excalibur,” and “The Emerald Forest,” he created wraparound sensory experiences that were almost phantasmagoric in their power.
The saving grace of “Queen and Country” is that its nostalgia is not laced with sentimentality. Even working in this conventional mode, Boorman doesn’t try to strong-arm us into blubberiness.
When Bill’s family is sitting around their new black-and-white telly watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the wisecracks are worthy of “Mystery Science Theater.” In moments like these the rapscallion spirit of the 9-year-old Billy bursts forth. I hope Boorman follows through and makes a trilogy. Grade: B (This film is not rated.)