At his best, John Boorman has been a director capable of examining masculine crisis with an efficient formal rigor to match. That is certainly the case with Point Blank and Deliverance, where class-based instances of fractured male psyches simultaneously become intense interrogations of the cinematic medium’s capacity for rendering personal experience. Yet with a turn in 1987 to Hope and Glory and now Queen and Country, its sequel, Boorman trades both formal daring and stark introspection for a myopic nostalgia that’s predicated on reaffirming youthful, white-male peccadillos as beloved formations within not just the ego, but also as the necessary, underlying foundations of patriarchal order. There’s nothing remotely revisionist about Queen and Country, much less any rancor, primarily because Boorman insists on enshrining his young protagonists’ struggles as not merely meaningful instances of revealing the human condition, but essential moments of identity formation that are conspicuously, and problematically, tied to national identity.
The film begins with a brief moment from Hope and Glory, in which young Billy exclaims, “Thank you, Adolf!” after an errant bomb blows up his school in London during WWII. Fast-forward roughly a decade later and Billy (Callum Turner) is now in basic training in preparation for being deployed for the Korean War. It’s there that he’s mates with Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), is antagonized by Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), and further challenged by Major Cross (Richard E. Grant). The two soldiers are a rambunctious sort, as they covet a photograph of Jane Russell in the barracks and chase after women at night. Billy becomes infatuated with Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a poorly characterized lily-white dream girl who serves as a guiding light for Billy’s desires.
A boys-will-be-boys ethos drives far too much of Boorman’s interests, so that when Billy and Percy attempt to spy on a handful of women in their bedrooms, one of the young women appears at a window and presses her bare breast against the glass, causing the boys to recede in laughter and amazement. In this moment, Boorman is mistaking innocence for unchecked license, primarily because he plays the moment too straight and narrow, with nary a deviation from perpetuating an autobiographical longing for the past as the nexus to self-discovery. What Boorman proffers here is no more than a shoddy allusion to Animal House, with the young soldiers as stand-in for John Belushi falling from a ladder as he peeps through a woman’s window. Likewise, Billy’s sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), strips nude late in the film for a skinny dip and Boorman lets his protagonists look on googly-eyed, without complicating their clinically infatuated gaze.
Furthermore, Queen and Country lacks an ability to construct significant instances of character drama as symbolic of larger concerns pertaining to nationalist dilemmas. In one memorable scene, Major Bradley is left staring out of his window at England’s flag, as if contemplating his suggested PTSD and whether personal sacrifice fulfills a macrocosmic duty to one’s country. Yet even here, the moment is fleeting and simply a lip-service capper to a dull scene of poorly staged dialogue exchanges regarding discipline and obligation. Similarly muddled is a scene in which Billy and Ophelia see Rashomon and offer contrary readings of the film. Billy understands it as a film about perspective, since multiple points of view are given, but Ophelia suggests it’s a film about the woman, who’s always raped, no matter the scenario or vantage point. These would be intriguing differences were Boorman the least bit interested in locating such traumas within his own film; instead, women are merely used as the pawns and set decoration Ophelia suggests.
Boorman does display a knack for colorful compositions, most notably in scenes of Billy’s childhood home and during a dance sequence that stands out as one of the film’s few instances of visual accomplishment. Yet any of these momentary flashes of grace are depleted by other, flagrantly borrowed tics of cinematic elegance. The score by Stephen McKeon is a blatant rip-off of Shigeru Umebayashi’s piece “Yumeji’s Theme” that Wong Kar-Wai used in In the Mood for Love, and the film’s editing is simple, competent, and without note, as to become oppressively middlebrow.
Finally, Boorman’s cardinal sin is that he renders memory, particularly cultural memory, with a hackneyed dispassion that serves only to solidify how milquetoast a vision is on display. In comparison with Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, which hauntingly evokes personal memory as political directive, Queen and Country reveals little about strife as an armature for erecting combative, intimate portrayals of nation-based suffering.