Review: John Boorman’s ‘Queen and Country’ uses humor to offer a UK view of the Korean war

CANNES — When John Boorman released “Hope and Glory” in 1987, I was already fascinated by stories of living through WWII, and I thought his film painted a remarkable, unsentimental portrait of what it was like to be a child during the Blitz. It was all about somehow being able to have a childhood while the world was burning down around him, and it had a spectacular sense of time and place.

Walking into “Queen and Country,” his latest film, I had no idea it was a sequel. Written and directed by Boorman, this film takes place as Will, the little boy in the first film, is turning 19 and leaving home, conscripted into Army service as England is sending soldiers over to help fight the Korean War. There's actually a very short clip from “Hope And Glory” at the beginning, and then we dissolve to the island in the Thames where Will and his family still live. We see a Nazi in full uniform charge into the water, only to be shot and killed. Someone calls “cut!” and we realize we're watching them shoot a WWII era movie. The island is near Shepperton Studios, and Will watches, fascinated, as they “kill” the Nazi, again and again and again.

Of course, if Will goes to Korea, there won't be any second takes, and he is keenly aware of it. He waits until he is ordered to report to boot camp, and even then, he goes reluctantly. On his first day there, he meets Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), who becomes his constant companion, the one person who seems equally attuned to just how crazy the entire thing is. Boorman doesn't spend a lot of time on basic training, instead pushing forward to find Will and Percy assigned to teaching positions instead of combat. In some ways, it's a worse fate, because it gives them time to slowly go crazy as they bristle under the petty tyranny of Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), a rule-crazy stickler who spends most of his time bringing his subordinates up on absurd charges, which not only makes all of them hate him, but which also seems to wear mightily on Major Cross (the great Richard E. Grant).

One of the guys who helps Percy and Will make sense of the system is Private Redmond (Pat Shortt), who seems to constantly be mocking the officers in the camp while manipulating everything behind-the-scenes, always coming out on top somehow. Percy in particular sees Redmond as an inspiration, and tries to learn how to poke at authority with a smile on his face. One of the few releases for the boys comes when they are given leave to go into town. That's where they meet some local girls, including the cheerfully saucy nurse Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and an aloof beauty with sad eyes who Will nicknames Ophelia (Tasmin Egerton). Both of the guys are woefully inexperienced, and they're each after different things. Percy just wants sex, while Will seems himself as a potential rescuer, able to deliver Ophelia from whatever her pain is. Their journeys with these women don't go as expected, and I thought there was a lovely sense of longing to all of it. Edwards in particular is delightful, this sweet, carnal little thing who simply will not be denied.

I was surprised by just how funny the film, and how consistently. Caleb Landry Jones has been building a strong resume over the last few years, and in films as different as “AntiViral” and “X-Men: First Class,” he's given memorable performances. He takes the role of Percy and runs with it here, playing him both as a gleeful anarchist and also as someone masking a good deal of secret pain. Callum Turner as Will has a less dynamic role, but that's because Will is the observer here, the one trying to take in all of this insanity around him and make some sense of it. Just as the little boy version of the character served as our eyes and ears in “Hope and Glory,” Will can seem passive at times here because he's watching everything that's unfolding. Turner comes to life most in the scenes where Will goes home on leave. Will's older sister Dawn, played in the first film by Sammi Davis, is played now by Vanessa Kirby, and she's still wild, having moved off to Canada to start a family. She is such a force of nature in her scenes that it feels almost like a different movie. That's appropriate, though, because his family home is a refuge. Will's childhood wasn't normal, and it's only in the abnormal environment that he feels like he completely fits.

There is real sadness here, and eventually Percy has to go head to head with the rules and the regulations that are choking him, leaving Will to decide how far he's willing to push things. I particularly love the way the film ends. Boorman makes a very specific choice, and it is a reminder just how autobiographical this is. Perhaps this film is so good because it is an act of transcription, rather than creation, with Boorman wrestling his own youth up onto the screen almost whole. I'm thrilled to see that he is still capable of such clarity of tone, and while it took 27 years between films, “Queen and Country” proves to be a lovely counterpoint to “Hope and Glory.” It almost plays like a British version of “M*A*S*H” at times, but with a sweet sincerity that makes it clear that while it's a very funny film, it's not a joke. Not at all. For Boorman, memory is a river, one that he has been swimming in his whole life now.