Review: Queen and Country – Barbarism begins at home for British gem

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IF ANYONE missed the recent John Boorman war-(semi)biopic film Queen and Country then… I can hardly blame you. This film seemed to come out of nowhere and received basically no press coverage as far as I can tell. It’s a real shame, as Queen and Country is a little gem of a film and a fine example of British cinema to boot. Whatever your opinions on Boorman’s earlier work, one can’t deny he’s certainly an eclectic: The Emerald Forest (1985), Excalibur (1981), Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and… Zardoz (1974)… all mark him out as a distinctive and unusual filmsmith, regardless of whether he hits the mark or not.

The belated sequel to Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) – a film based on the director’s experience of growing up during the Blitz – Queen and Country is a refreshing take on the not often explored era of the Korean War, specifically from the perspective of Bill Rohan (Callum Turner). A conscripted Thames islander and alter ego of Boorman’s, Bill quickly reaches the rank of sergeant but is never posted for active duty. Instead, Bill is tasked with teaching semi-literate fellow conscripts how to type and transcribe orders in the company of his best friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones).

That might not sound particularly gripping by the standards of war films, but with strongly distinctive writing and acting throughout, coupled with some truly luscious and evocative cinematography, Queen and Country is surprisingly compelling and seldom drags.

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The real strength of the film lies in its coming of age narrative. The remarkable absence of gore, and only an intermittent foray into brawling, is substituted for by the violent umbrage the regimental sergeants exact upon the conscripts and the equally vicious frustration borne by NCOs Bill and Percy towards their insensibly authoritarian sergeant majors: Sgt. Bradley (an excellent David Thewlis) and RSM. Digby (Brian F. O’Byrne). This pair’s drilling almost makes Gunnery Sargent Hartman seem pleasant; their uncaring, entitled commanding officer, Major Cross (Richard E.Grant), also occasionally graces the screen in bouts of priggish conceit.

While watching, I was vividly reminded of another film with obsessive levels of attention to period detail and exquisite cinematography: My Week with Marilyn. Both, after all, cover similar romantic-drama ground: Boy protagonist is infatuated with mysterious and/or iconic girl; boy is driven to/compelled to pursue a career which in turn leads him into a chance encounter with the said girl and begins a one sided love affair with her; boy believes himself to be the only man who understands her, oblivious to the fact that he has made her icon an icon of his own and doesn’t really know anything about her beyond his romanticisation.

The implication we are left with in both instances, is that whilst a first love may appear all-consuming and painfully vital in its first throngs, the people people are when they first fall in love generally have a good deal more growing to do and rarely know first-hand what they really want or value. In both films, we see the protagonists disconsolate at the almost inevitable failing of their raison d’etre, but quickly find solace in the charms of more familiar, worldly and less imposing admirers who’d been in the foreground all along.

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Yep, rather bog-standard stuff in the guffing smultz mill of the modern romance genre, but undeniably well-executed in both films. In both, cinematography and lighting is put to commendable effect in evoking the light-headed fixation of their young love. A perfect example lies in the frame above, taken from a scene where Bill imagines Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), who he is kind of inadvertently stalking, to be looking about for him at a concert, despite having never met him.

The two protagonists also have strong similarities: Marilyn’s Colin (Eddie Redmayne, prior to gaining Oscar fame, or becoming the insatiable devourer of scenery he would later grow to be) and Queen and Country’s Bill share a similarly strained, but not unaffectionate, relationship with their more conservative Edwardian forbears.

What makes Queen and Country a better film is that it has a rather more mature approach, and doesn’t fall into that common romantic drama trap where the story inevitably becomes self-concerned, ignoring the world developing around the central characters. We never lose sight of the fact that, while Bill is growing and changing, the world, Britain and the British Army are changing too.

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The Army in particular comes across as a strange idiosyncrasy, on the cusp of becoming an anachronism, with its insistency on conformity, strict hierarchy and ritual for conscripts who are unanimously unmotivated to serve it and even less motivated to fight in Korea. If the First and Second World Wars saw the slow demise of British imperialism, it would perhaps take the Korean War and the death of lingering figureheads like George VI to put an end to it in principle.

For all its good points, Queen and Country is by no means spotless. A significant portion of the actors, particularly the privates, have little screen time and even less development. Even some stronger parts, like Bill’s Canadian half-sister Grace (Vanessa Kirby), suffer from appearing only half-way through the film and seem too alien to offer much of an engaging sub plot. Furthermore, it can’t really be called a particularly pacey or tense feature, rarely leaving the restrictive confines of the barracks, or Bill’s own island cottage idyll.

It could even be called anti-climactic, providing unexciting resolutions to prior conundrums. But it is, nevertheless, an excellently crafted film which meets its modest aims and offers some heartfelt and diverting insights into contemporary life and the act of growing up. A real joy to watch.

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