John Boorman's Queen and Country begins with a flashback: a fleeting scene from his beautiful, spirited childhood reverie, 1987's Oscar-nominated Hope and Glory. The boy hero, Bill, is abuzz with elation. Thanks to a Nazi bomb, school has been closed. He and his friends have been liberated - free to run amok in the rubble of the London Blitz.
Then, young Bill morphs into 19-year-old Bill (Callum Turner, gawky, flappy-earred, charming), swimming in the Thames downriver from London. His family house is actually on an island; you ring a bell on the towpath, and someone fetches you in a boat. It's the early 1950s, and Bill has been conscripted, sent off to basic training. The expectation is that his regiment will go fight alongside the Americans in the Korean War.
Like Hope and Glory, Boorman's Queen and Country finds exhilarating comedy in places usually reserved for drama, violence, loss. It is a buoyant and personal film, a coming-of-age story in which the smart, independent-minded Bill makes friends with a rebellious fellow recruit, Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), and falls head over heels for an elegant, melancholic older woman (Tamsin Egerton). That is, older than Bill: Although he doesn't know her name, he knows that she is 24, a student at Oxford, that she is emotionally "a mess." It's an unfulfilled romance, full of yearning (his) and reticence (hers), but they go to the movies together (Rashomon). He invites her to meet his family. Bill's sister, Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), visiting from Canada, mocks his aloof, pedigreed date, nicknamed Ophelia for her doomy romanticism.
Not all that much happens in Queen and Country. An antique clock goes missing from regimental HQ, and a tyrannical sergeant major (Brían F. O'Byrne) suspects Bill and Percy are behind the theft. David Thewlis, wearing little round glasses and a look of perturbation, is Bradley, the recruits' NCO. He is a stickler for regulations and becomes the bane of Bill and Percy's life in the R.A.R.F. - the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. Ah, those Brits.
Boorman, 82, has been making movies since the mid-'60s. His first was A Hard Day's Night knockoff starring the Dave Clark Five. He has done neo-noir (Point Blank, with Lee Marvin), Arthurian legend (Excalibur), and remains perhaps best known for 1972's Deliverance, the backwoods nightmare with Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and that plunking banjo.
Boorman's career has not been prolific, but it is significant. In Queen and Country, you see the British filmmaker's passion: Bill and Percy trade quotes from Casablanca, trade notes on Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train. Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard works its way into conversation, and Britain's famed Shepperton Studios is just down the road from the family abode.
The last shot of Queen and Country: a movie camera. The director's life and love, entwined.
Queen and Country *** 1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by John Boorman. With Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Tamsin Egerton,
David Thewlis, and Richard E. Grant.
Distributed by BBC Worldwide America.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse.EndText