Look around the bus or train — look out the window at the people passing by — pick any random person in a crowd, and chances are you’ll land on someone who would love to make a movie like Queen and Country. Every year, a dozen or so actually make the attempt, to immortalize their youth and capture the glow of some distant point in time, but they almost never succeed. Something essential gets lost in the translation, and the personal remains impenetrable.
So Queen and Country, John Boorman’s semiautobiographical film about his days as a conscript in the British army, has to be counted as something magical. Somehow he does it. He brings us to a time and place, Britain in the 1950s, and places us with a set of characters, and immediately we’re at home in this world. The story is minimal, just a series of events in the life of a young man and his circle, but every scene is rendered with such authenticity that it’s riveting, almost like it’s a privilege to be stepping back in time.
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A sequel to his 1987 film Hope and Glory, about being a child during World War II, Queen and Country has two dominant strains, which could be in opposition, except somehow they’re not. On the one side, Boorman’s vision of the past is caustic, and he presents Army life as an absurdity. The commanding NCOs and officers are incompetent or delusional, operating according to rules that no longer seem to apply. They’re throwbacks to some earlier vision of reality and look stiff and ridiculous next to the young men around them.
At the same time, Queen and Country is a loving film. Love pervades it, in Boorman’s depiction of friendship and comradeship, in his re-creation of his childhood home, in his presentation of sex and young romance, even in his filming of a spring day — the eternal spring of youth. Love also pervades Boorman’s realization of the era, and somehow extends, with the distance of maturity, to the most troublesome, unappealing characters in the film.
To put it another way, Boorman is 82; his film is the clear product of an old man’s virtues, perspective and wisdom, with none of the usual vices, such as windiness and sentimentality. To watch Queen and Country is to get the impression of a man who has gone through life and actually learned something, which not everyone does.
Here he applies what he’s learned to the story of Bill (Callum Turner), who is 18 and drafted into the British army. Instead of being sent to the Korean War, he is assigned to become a typing teacher. It’s a boring assignment, but it leaves him time to do all the things that young men do, like get into trouble, fall in love and visit home.
The casting here is particularly fine. Most of the time, actors in period films look like people of today with old-style haircuts, but here the people look like it’s 1952. Perhaps it’s just a matter of consciousness as imparted through good direction, but it feels like something more. There’s a midcentury vividness to the face of Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Bill’s roommate. And Turner looks like another era’s idea of a leading man.
Some of the best moments seem too odd to make up — they have the strangeness of real life. At one point, Bill and his roommate are walking on the base and hear someone whistling the old music hall song The Soldiers of the Queen. From that, they make the leap to assuming that the king has died — and they’re right.
Throughout, there are hints of Boorman’s future profession in Bill’s interest in the latest movies, but Boorman doesn’t hammer that point too hard. Truffaut used to speculate whether cinema was more important than life, but as Boorman makes clear in the film’s last image, for him cinema is at best a close second.
Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Tamsin Egerton.
Writer-director: John Boorman.
A BBC World release. Running time: 115 minutes. Brief vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Tower, Cosford; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale.