Editor’s note: On Wednesday. February 18, John Boorman will be at Film Forum following the 7pm screening for a Q&A moderated by film critic Graham Fuller.
Britain’s National Service, an extension of wartime conscription, was a peculiar institution, initiated by Clement Atlee’s Labour government in the late ’40s to meet the twin crises of the intensifying Cold War and nationalist challenges to Britain’s rule of its much diminished global empire. For a generation of young men, the compulsory two years they spent in the British services linked adolescence to adulthood via the absurdities of bureaucracies, the arbitrariness of rules, and the fatality of national aspirations to glory. Indeed, the administration of National Service was as quixotic as its aims.
As my father stood in line to receive his orders after his basic training, the young man in directly in front of him was ordered to Glasgow while my father learned he would be going to Gil Gil, via the Mediterranean, Aden, and the Indian Ocean. One of my father’s school friends had already died in an Irgun attack in Palestine. Other National Servicemen found themselves consigned to the Korea. And my father found himself enjoying all the privileges of the last years of the British Empire as a 19-year-old sergeant in the Kenya Highlands.
John Boorman’s new film eloquently captures this surreal experience of peacetime conscription. Queen and Country picks up the story of Bill Rohan, last seen in the closing scenes of 1987’s Hope and Glory cheering the Luftwaffe’s direct hit on his school. When Bill (Callum Turner) and his working class friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) excel in the commando course, they are sent not as cold-hearted killers to some distant battlefield but appointed as sergeant instructors to teach typing to the flat-footed and ill-educated recruits destined for the clerical corps.
As a refuge from boredom and sexual frustration (nice girls still don’t, at least not at first), they bait authority, primarily in the person of their direct superior, the obsessively rule-bound Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). They subtly subvert dress codes, spatter their lectures with sophisticated language just on the safe side of sedition, and indulge in the symbolic theft of the 19th-century clock from the Sergeants’ mess.
While the premise is both wry and funny, the early parts of the film hover uncomfortably between two genres, neither particularly relevant to 2015. Scenes oscillate between the slapstick anarchy of 1958’s Carry On, Sergeant, which also skewered the clash between grizzled full-timers and time-wasting conscripts, and the bittersweet nostalgia at which British film and TV producers and directors have for so long, if so pointlessly, excelled. And Boorman accentuates this sense of déjà vu by piling on cliché after cliché from retrospective visions of ’50s-era British life.
Bill’s sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), returns from Canada as the unhappy war bride disillusioned with her husband and two small children. The family’s first TV arrives, a stocky cube with a temperamental aerial and its cycling picture, just in time to watch the coronation of the young Elizabeth, and the pronouncement of a new Elizabethan age.
But while Boorman does not transform the genre, as he did in Hope and Glory, he does give the film more bite than the usual soft-focus waltz down memory lane. He draws from Thewlis and Turner tender, well-rounded performances, and elicits one of Richard E. Grant’s best high-wire cameos, as a career major destined to adjudicate, apparently forever, between a war-weary regular army and the rag-tag conscripts who land in his camp, 400 at a time, every six weeks.
Boorman also creates in Bill a charming romantic intelligence that likens successful marching to the dazzling synchronicity of dancing, and finds in mysterious, neurasthenic Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) the perfect unattainable object. As elusive as the images from the brand new television, she’s a screen onto which he projects love, chivalry, and sacrifice.
Ophelia seems too obviously a personification of the British class system, not quite so firmly on its last legs in 1952 as it might have seemed when the reforming Labour Party ousted Winston Churchill’s Conservatives in 1945. But she is no cipher, as her sharp exchange will Bill after a viewing of Rashomon confirms. When Bill praises the ambiguity of Kurosawa’s multi-perspective storytelling, Ophelia reminds him sharply that, whatever the explanation for the events in the movie, the woman is always raped. For those who remember Hope and Glory, her comment emphasizes just how transitory the wartime emotional and sexual freedom enjoyed by both Bill’s sister and mother was, and how quickly after 1945 it was lost.
The movie is thus most successful and most illuminating to contemporary audiences, not when it’s rooted in a recreation of the past, but when it’s probing generational conflict, when the generations themselves are divided irretrievably by a dark encounter with history, in this case world war. In the best sequences of Queen and Country, Boorman captures with economy and grace, how for each generation it’s impossible to return to any reassuring status quo ante, yet equally impossible to move forward and begin again with the proverbial clean slate. Boorman highlights the unthinking cruelty of adolescent rebellion when its object is Sergeant Major Bradley, who suffered, as did so many soldiers during World War II, what typical British understatement of the ’50s and ’60s quietly labeled “a bad war”.
For Bradley, the routines of the regular army are the last bastion against utter chaos, and when they are removed, he is destroyed. For Ben and Percy, they are the last barriers to full adulthood, as no mutual tolerance, much less understanding, is possible. They prefer to take refuge in the fantasy of war, whether it’s the last scene of Casablanca that cements their friendship on the first day they meet, or Bill’s voyeuristic delight in watching the multiple takes of a Nazi soldier’s death at Shepperton studies, next door to his grandfather’s home.
Boorman still abjures, though, at 81, the simplistic. Movies, where one can reshoot life over and over again until it’s perfect (or at least workable), might be preferable to real life for his quasi-autobiographic protagonist. But perhaps the secrets of social dissolution learned during the war are what bring truth to the movies?