John Boorman has gone back to the wellspring of personal experience that so richly informed his 1987 “Hope and Glory” for “Queen and Country,” and the result is a modest but pleasing return to form for the 81-year-old British director, here making his first feature since 2006’s little-seen “The Tiger’s Tale.” Set a decade on from “Hope,” during the Boorman surrogate’s compulsory military service, “Queen” never reaches the lyrical heights of its predecessor — arguably one of the greatest of all films about childhood and war — but benefits from a vividly realized sense of time and place and a gallery of colorful supporting characters burnished with the warm glow of memory. The modestly budgeted pic should see considerably greater critical and commercial success than Boorman’s last several efforts following its Cannes premiere in Directors’ Fortnight, which has made a habit in recent years of screening the “comeback” films of maverick 1960s and ‘70s auteurs (Friedkin, Coppola, Skolimowski, Jodorowsky).
One of those atypical Hollywood movies to emerge from Columbia Pictures during the brief, ill-fated tenure of prolific British producer David Puttnam as studio head, “Hope and Glory” went on to earn five Oscar nominations (including three for Boorman, as producer, writer and director) for its unforgettable portrait of the London Blitz as seen through the wide, impressionable eyes of a 9-year-old boy for whom the bombed-out buildings and shrapnel-strewn streets became a kind of fantastical playground. Picking up literally where that film left off — with the iconic image of rowdy schoolboys “thanking” Adolf Hitler for reducing their schoolhouse to rubble — “Queen and Country” then jumps forward a decade to find now 18-year-old Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) still living in his family’s bucolic house on the Thames. We are a stone’s throw from the famous Shepperton film studio, whose crews occasionally turn up in the marshy reeds, seeding in Bill the thoughts of his future profession.
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It’s an idyllic existence, but army life looms and soon Bill is off to boot camp, where he befriends a fellow conscript, Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), who’s as much of a hellraiser as Bill is a wallflower, especially when it comes to members of the opposite sex. The time is 1952, and the threat of being shipped off to Korea looms large. But Bill and Percy instead find themselves appointed sergeant instructors charged with training other recruits in such essential matters as typing and map reading, and gradually “Queen and Country” falls into the rhythms of an old-fashioned service comedy — more “No Time for Sergeants” than “MASH” — as the two young recruits labor under the thumb of a fussbudget Sgt. Major (the wonderful David Thewlis), whose masochistic love for rules and order tries even the patience of his own superiors (including a major played with great, sardonic exhaustion by Richard E. Grant).
A series of increasingly elaborate, Percy-instigated pranks follows suit, and Jones, who has the wiry, electric intensity of the young Brad Dourif, is a particular delight to watch as he exults in his own anarchic glee. Elsewhere, romance blossoms between Bill and a mysterious blonde (Tamsin Egerton) he meets at a string quartet recital; she lets him call her Ophelia, though she refuses to divulge any other details of her provenance (including if Ophelia is actually her real name).
While the army scenes hum along nicely enough, “Queen and Country” becomes considerably more compelling once Bill returns home on leave and Boorman reintroduces the extended cast of family and friends endeared by the previous film: mother Grace (Sinead Cusack), father Clive (David Hayman, the only member of the “Hope” cast to reprise his role here) cuckoo grandpa George (John Standing), and free-spirited sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), who ran off at the end of the war with a French-Canadian soldier and has newly returned home, having impulsively abandoned her husband and two young children. (She, in turn, will become the unexpected apple of Percy’s eye.) These domestic scenes exude an effortless feel for ordinary middle-class life in postwar London, culminating in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 and, with it, the promise of a new prosperity.
“Queen and Country” lacks the immediacy of “Hope and Glory,” in part because there’s no single animating event here to rival the Blitz, and also because newcomer Turner lacks the natural screen charisma and sense of a vibrant inner life that his predecessor, the child actor Sebastian Rice Edwards, brought to the role. But it remains a pleasure to spend time in the presence of these characters, and a third volume — perhaps focused on Bill’s entrance into the British film industry — would hardly be unwelcome.
Craft contributions are generally strong, especially d.p. Seamus Deasy and production designer Anthony Pratt, both longtime Boorman collaborators, who create a seamless flow between London location work and budget-dictated studio shooting in Romania.