Title: Queen And Country
Director: John Boorman
Major Players: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, David Thewlis
Out Of Five: 3.5
It was 1987 when John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical Hope And Glory arrived on the big screen. This was the story of a young boy, Bill Rohan, growing up in London during the Blitz in World War II and everything that went with it – the sense of adventure and excitement, the change in the role of women and the decidedly mixed blessing of having your school blown up by a bomb.
That last scene, complete with its big thank you to Hitler shouted to the skies, comes right at the start of the sequel, Queen And Country. But then it moves forward to 1952, with Bill (Callum Turner) living at home with his parents, hoping that the Government will forget to call him up for National Service. It doesn’t, so off he goes, making friends with fellow recruit Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones). Once basic training is over, the two are promoted to sergeant and land what appears to be a cushy number – teaching other soldiers to type. But, with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) imposing discipline by the letter of the law, it gets increasingly stressful, especially for the naturally rebellious Percy.
National Service in the 50s is familiar territory for British movies. Leslie Thomas’ Virgin Soldiers and Peter Nichols’ Privates On Parade both moved to the big screen, with their raw recruits learning all about life, war and sex in the East. Queen And Country doesn’t stray beyond these shores, giving its story not just a different setting but a different perspective.
There’s little in the way of physical injuries as a result of war – one character is sent to Korea and returns an amputee – but the mental toll is more apparent. David Thewlis’ Bradley is obsessed with maintaining discipline, much to the irritation of Major Cross (an uncharacteristically low-key Richard E Grant). For most of the film, there’s only the occasional facial twitch to indicate the deeper reason for his behaviour: sticking like glue to the rules is the only way he can hold himself together. Percy demonstrates the effect of National Service on somebody ill-suited to military life. Despite his antics and apparent arrogance, he’s disintegrating inside and looks more and more distressed as the film progresses.
As a film, Queen And Country is solid, well made and likeable, a reminder of Boorman’s strengths as a writer and director. This is his first film since 2006, after such titles as Point Blank (1967), Deliverance (1972) and, more recently, The Tailor Of Panama (2001). He’s assembled an almost entirely new cast for this sequel – with the exception of David Hayman, who also played the father in Hope And Glory – and gets believable, human performances from all of them. The stand-out piece of acting comes from David Thewlis who never once falls into the trap of making the Sergeant Major a routine sadistic bully. His is a damaging and damaged man, hiding his pain behind obsession and David Hockney glasses.
Queen And Country’s traditional style may seem a little out of step with today’s film making, but it’s perfectly in tune with the narrative and its themes. And this isn’t just a film for people who remember the 1950s: it has something to say to everybody.
Queen And Country is currently in London and released nationwide on Friday, 12 June. It’s also reviewed on the latest Talking Pictures podcast.