From “Point Blank” (1967) to “Deliverance” (1972) to “The Emerald Forest” (1985) to “The General” (1998), the fine British-born director John Boorman has tended to specialize in tales of outsider heroes placed in extreme, often extremely violent, situations. Yet his most personal work is 1987’s “Hope and Glory,” a thinly disguised autobiography of Boorman’s childhood during WWII — of how the era was, to a 10-year-old boy, as magical as it was horrible.
That’s a lovely film, and highly recommended. Now, almost two decades on, comes a sequel, “Queen and Country,” which follows the writer-director’s lanky alter ego, Bill Rohan (Callum Turner), as he turns 18 and is conscripted into the British armed forces during the Korean War in the early 1950s. There’s no way around the fact that this is a lesser endeavor than “Hope and Glory,” but when it’s good, which is often enough, “Queen and Country” glows with a master storyteller’s sense of memory.
A coming-of-age story in general shape, it’s an army comedy-drama in its specifics, with the levelheaded Bill and his anarchic chum Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones) tilting against the inanity, insanity, and SNAFUs of military life. Their commanding officer, Sgt. Major Bradley (David Thewlis), is a rule-obsessed martinet, the regimental sergeant major (Brian F. O’Byrne) a sadistic bully, the major (Richard E. Grant) an upper-class twit. If nothing else, “Queen and Country” provides employ for some of England’s most reliable character actors.
That includes the cannonball-shaped Pat Shortt as Pvt. Redmond, a world-class “shiver” (i.e., slacker) whose hernia comes and goes, mostly acting up when boxes need to be lifted or an officer needs to be saluted. “Queen and Country” shows a modern sensibility in its young hero’s all-encompassing disgust with the military mind-set, but it has one foot in Britain’s old “Carry On” comedies, and a subplot in which Percy and Redmond steal the RSM’s beloved regimental clock could come straight out of the old Henry Fonda classic “Mr. Roberts.”
Likewise, Bill’s romantic adventures off the army base are fond and well-filmed but not especially urgent. There’s a mystery girl from the land of the upper classes whom the hero nicknames Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) for her sadness and psychological torment (of both the love-struck Bill and herself). And there’s Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a student nurse who’s more tart than Ophelia (in both senses) and who isn’t above a bared breast or a quick how-d’ye-do in an empty hospital room. She’s Percy’s girlfriend but has an eye for Bill, which leads to complications that are both predictable and mercifully brief.
Ironically, when “Queen and Country” feels like something we haven’t seen before, it’s in the scenes among Bill’s family, whom we’ve met in “Hope and Glory.” The echoes of the earlier film’s dramas can still be felt: The affair Bill’s mother (Sinead Cusack) had while his father (David Hayman, the only actor repeating his “Hope and Glory “ role) was off at war, the willfulness of older sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), who drops in from Canada with two children in tow and the electric energy of an undampened free spirit. Bill’s relationship with her is loving to the edge of incest, which is a little strange but also idiosyncratic and unique, qualities of which this movie could use more.
Another distinctive touch is the Rohan family home on an island in the Thames in the small town of Shepperton, a locale better known for its film studio. The movies are never far from the surface in “Queen and Country”: Bill and Percy exchange lines from “Casablanca” on first encounter, and, later on, the hero takes his Ophelia on a date to see Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” that daring philosophical art-film from far-off Japan.
A marvelous early scene involves Bill out for a morning swim, startled to see a Nazi officer get shot in the back and collapse into the river. It’s for a movie, of course, and he watches as they replay the scene again and again until the actor gets it right. Says Bill on the soundtrack, “That seemed much better than life, where you only got one go.” No wonder John Boorman grew up to be a filmmaker; it’s one of the few places you get to give your own life one more go.