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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Review: Queen and Country

The tone of Queen and Country is set in its opening moments - moments taken directly from the end of Hope and Glory, the 1987 comedy that earned John Boorman nominations for Best Director and Best Picture - in which school children in World War II-era London run around a bombed-out school, thanking Hitler for giving them the day off. It's a moment that simultaneously acknowledges both the horrors of war and the reality that, on a micro level, most people aren't personally affected by those horrors in ways they can really grasp until they're older. Queen and Country, Boorman's similarly-autobiographical sequel, may be set a decade later, but it has maintained the thoughtful, dryly comic tone on display in that final/opening scene.

In Queen and Country, Bill Rohan (now played by Callum Turner) is now old enough to be conscripted into mandatory military service for two years. There, he meets madcap trickster Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), but rather than be shipped off to Korea, the two are made sergeants and forced to spend their two years training other incoming conscripts. Bill and Percy learn how to slack off from the local expert, Redmond (Pat Shortt), and find romance with a local nurse (Amy-Ffion Edwards) and a mysterious older beauty (Tamsin Egerton), all while dealing with the damaged, obsessive superior officers who have been left behind to man the camp. It is, in essence, an artier version of a classic 1980s 'slobs vs snobs' story. Bill, Percy, and Redmond want to relax, have a good time; commanding officers like Bradley (David Thewlis) and Cross (Richard E. Grant) try to stop them. Chaos ensues.

And boy howdy does chaos ensue. Unlike similarly-themed movies like Stripes, Queen and Country always has one foot rooted firmly in reality, so there are consequences - occasionally surprisingly horrifying consequences, given how minor their crimes are - for their actions. Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) in particular is a standout for his anarchic energy and playfully insane line readings. Boorman lets them build into the portrait of a genuinely broken young man, and it's surprising how heavily the drama of the film's climax leans on us caring for him - and how much it works. Similarly, David Thewlis (Remus Lupin of the Harry Potter films) is fantastic as a hardcore stickler for army regulations with whom Bill and Percy regularly clash, but it would be a mistake to see him as a villain. Few of these men are at fault so much as the system itself, the system that breaks them down and then throws them in a mean grinder for queen and country. Boorman does a great job at giving his characters hidden depths, turning stock comic archetypes into fully fleshed out human beings with their own stories and tragedies.

There are some aspects that are a bit more... questionable. It may be autobiographical, but Bill's romance with a mysterious, unnamed woman he calls Ophelia (Egerton) is frustratingly opaque. There are some interesting insights from Ophelia and I appreciate the rare, fairly candid look at depression, but she frequently comes off in the film as a Depressive Pixie Nightmare Girl, a mysterious nymph who exists just to reveal the hidden depths of the universe (and, unpredictably, film criticism) to Bill. Meanwhile, in a touch I sincerely hope isn't autobiographical - though it's not funny enough to warrant inclusion for any other reason - Bill's firecracker sister, played warmly and weirdly by Vanessa Kirby, has a relationship with him (and everyone) that verges on incestuous. Boorman finds canny depth in his male characters, but, Bill's mother aside, he shows less understanding to his female ones.

Still, Queen and Country is a fairly engaging movie, even speaking as someone who never saw the original. It has its flaws, but Boorman is ultimately a fairly empathetic writer and director, and the movie reflects that. The dialogue is sharp, even when it's being dramatic; Ophelia's reading of Rashomon, for example, is a major turning point in her story delivered in a brief, insightful monologue that is among the film's finest exchanges. But Queen and Country can just as easily be cuttingly funny, and it often is, particularly for those who enjoy drier British humor. Whether he's doing it to drive home the film's themes or craft a laugh-out-loud sight gag, Boorman displays a talent for subverting expectations without losing sight of his characters, and that's what ultimately makes Queen and Country work as well as it does.

Queen and Country is currently airing in limited release nationwide, and will open in Atlanta's Midtown Art Cinema on April 17th. Written and directed by John Boorman, Queen and Country stars Callum Turner, Vanessa Kirby, David Thewlis, and Richard E. Grant.
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