Early in his career, Denzel Washington played characters that often found themselves embedded within an environment of significant political import. In 1986’s Power, his Arnold Billing stood in the way of an ambitious media consultant played by Richard Gere; in 1987’s Cry Freedom, he received an Oscar nomination for portraying political activist Steve Biko; and 1989’s The Mighty Quinn suggested a more multi-faceted Washington, an actor capable of the charisma, humor, energy, and virility he would come to be best known for in the films of Spike Lee and Tony Scott. Thus, it’s unsurprising given such precedence that For Queen and Country found Washington inhabiting a role that requires a quieter, less fiery energy, often in service of a narrative that has little clue as to how such dynamism could be utilized. It would be a year later, in Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, before Washington’s talents would be fully actualized.
Perhaps it’s fortunate for Washington’s career, then, that For Queen and Country was both a commercial and financial failure. Critics generally praised Washington while denigrating the film, which makes sense because director Martin Stellman, perhaps previously best known as a credited screenwriter for 1979’s Quadrophenia, addresses the racism inherent to Britain’s 1981 Nationality Law, which denied citizenship to those born in the West Indies, as fodder for the most banal sort of, what film scholar James Naremore calls, “male melodrama.”