Of all the many, many sequels to land in theaters this year, by far the most unexpected is “Queen And Country.” It follows up a film released 27 years ago, and which was never more than a modest hit. It doesn’t have superheroes or dragons or aging action heroes. It’s an autobiographical period piece set in 1950s England. And it’s helmed not by some music-video upstart or Sundance breakout, but by an 81-year-old filmmaker who hasn’t made a movie in eight years. And yet, while we suppose that “Horrible Bosses 2” or “Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb” could end up surprising, we’d wager that “Queen And Country,” John Boorman‘s belated continuation of his Best Picture-nominated 1987 film “Hope & Glory,” and which screened in Cannes as part of Directors’ Fortnight this week, will end up being better than most of the more cynically-planned sequels that are coming down the pipe. It’s flawed, more so than its predecessor, but has enough worthwhile in it to make it a very welcome return for Boorman.
Picking up nine years after the events of “Hope & Glory,” it’s now 1952, and protagonist Bill Rohan (now played by Callum Turner, the first successful attempt to clone Eddie Redmayne) is now eighteen. He has a deep love of film, but it’ll have to wait, because like every eighteen-year-old at the time, he’s got to spend two years in the army doing his National Service, which carries a high risk at this point, due to the ongoing Korean War. But along with best mate Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), Bill gets a relatively cushy job back at base, teaching recruits how to type, and briefing them on what to expect in Korea. They’re then free to spend most of their time winding up commanding officer Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), scheming with world-class skiver Redmond (Pat Shortt), and chasing girls. Until one girl, a posh enigmatic one recovering from a nervous breakdown, who Bill comes to call Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), gets under his skin.
In a way, the film didn’t have to be a direct sequel. Boorman could have used his National Service experiences to create a different film if he’d wanted. But “Queen And Country” does gain something from taking the Antoine Doinel approach. You could arguably lift Bill’s family, including his sister (now played by Vanessa Kirby), straight out without affecting the main narrative too much, but the film benefits from a sort of cumulative storytelling, giving fans of the first an immediate shorthand.
Other than a brief segment where Bill returns home to see the family and watch the Queen’s coronation, action is mostly confined to the barracks, and Boorman keeps the tone fairly light and bouncy for the most part. Indeed, it sometimes feels a little like marathoning a few episodes of a pretty good old-school sitcom about national service, with pranks and japes more in order than tragedy, and the film sometimes feels slight as a result. That said, Boorman does leaven in just enough drama to keep it from being a featherweight, most effectively in the hints of sadness behind Bradley’s uptight, rules-following manner (Thewlis’ excellent performance goes a long way towards helping out with this).
Even better is Bill’s thwarted never-quite-romance with Ophelia. Depression wasn’t a term that was as familiar at the time, but it’s clear that she’s suffering from it in a big way, and anyone who’s ever loved anyone who can’t get out of their own head will undoubtedly find the film striking a chord. But it’s more universal than that—it’s simply a well-drawn and tragic first love story that’s nicely performed by both Turner and Egerton. Less successful is Landry Jones, familiar from “X-Men: First Class,” among others. We’ve liked him in the right roles in the past, but here, as the roguish best pal, he’s even worse than he was in last year’s “Byzantium.” He’s severely miscast, which is part of the problem, but he’s also mannered and much broader than everyone else around him, playing to the back row in a way that only exacerbates the TV-ish touches going on.
It’s almost enough to sink “Queen And Country,” but the film does survive. Boorman’s too much of a pro, and his classical, confident filmmaking never lets you forget that he’s been at this for half a century or so. “Queen & Country” is hardly reinventing the wheel, but it’s charming, evocative and (mostly) well-performed, and were Boorman to continue with his autobiographical cycle, we’d certainly welcome further installments. [B]