John Boorman’s filmography is like the attic of a prolific, swashbuckling filmmaker uncle. Up there, alongside the brass-bound sea chests and rusty swords, sits a treasure trove of cinematic excursions to the heights of derring-do, including medieval knights-in-armor fantasies (Excalibur), horror sequels (Exorcist II: The Heretic), trips to the Amazon jungles (The Emerald Forest), violent war movies (Hell in the Pacific), romantic dramas (Where the Heart Is), dystopian science fiction (Zardoz), modern crime thrillers (The General), updated film noirs (the illustrious Point Blank), and the epitome of stressful canoe-trip adventures, Deliverance. The common denominator is action.
Yet the octogenarian UK-native writer-producer-director has a reflective, nostalgic side to him. In 1987, Boorman made Hope and Glory, a thinly veiled autobiographical story about a boy named Bill Rohan and how his family survived the air-raid blitz in World War II London. Now, 27 years later, come the further exploits of Bill Rohan: Queen and Country, a pithy revival of the service comedy, a subgenre that has largely fallen out of fashion.
England, 1952. Nineteen-year-old Bill (Callum Turner) finds himself conscripted into the British Army. He and his mates are ostensibly training to fight in Korea but they never actually go anywhere. Instead, we’re introduced to a roster of comic military types. Our hero is a mild-mannered sort, fresh from an idyllic youth on a small island above London, near the film studio at Shepperton. Bill’s buddy and fellow sergeant Percy Hapgood (a manic Caleb Landry Jones) is an incurable practical joker whose latest project — stealing the prized regimental clock — causes the already irritable Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis, at full throttle) to blow a gasket. Private Redmond (Pat Shortt), the army base’s most accomplished skiver (malingerer), specializes in avoiding any form of work. The men spend their days engaged in typing classes and other dubious pursuits. All this zaniness is taking a toll on the commanding officer, Major Cross (Richard E. Grant, with steam issuing from his ears), who appears to be nearing a nervous breakdown.
Balanced against army life are Bill’s infatuation with an ethereal upper-class blonde he calls “Ophelia” (Tamsin Egerton), his overriding desire to make movies, and the warm conviviality of his family, including his sassy, free-spirited sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby). Meanwhile, the mischievous Percy has to settle for Sophie, a lusty army nurse (Aimee Ffion-Edwards). All of the above characters get into each others’ hair every minute of every day, and the result is the sort of movie we don’t often see in 2015: a comedy that is not uproariously funny, with laugh lines piled on top of each other at a furious pace, but something more leisurely that lingers in the mind after the punch lines fade away. It’s the portrait of a society in transition, told in personal terms.
Filmmaker Boorman’s stroll down memory lane does not bowl us over with rapid-fire hilarity. It soothes us and then melts away unobtrusively. In the glow of Bill’s/Boorman’s memories are meditations on the rhythms of life that literary figures might ordinarily save for their memoirs — for Boorman they naturally belong in a film. The film is as charming and understated as a slice of pie with a cup of blackcurrant tea — very English, very civilized, a bit dozy, but openhearted and generous in spirit. It’s a story that Boorman has in him, the way it was then. We’re happy he’s sharing it.