Queen & County is John Boorman’s follow-up to his 1987 semi-autobiographical film Hope & Glory, although why a sequel now, after 28 years, I don’t know. (We’re not in regular contact.) I can only tell you that if you absolutely loved the first film, as I did — and still do — the news I’m about to deliver is not great, but there’s no avoiding it, so here you are: this is tonally confused, emotionally unengaging, doesn’t seem relevant in any way, and as for Bill, who was once so bright and charming and promising, he’s nothing special any more. I don’t know what I expected him to turn out like, but dull? I didn’t see that coming, I confess.
Hope & Glory was the story of nine-year-old Bill (then played by Sebastian Rice-Edwards) and his family as they endured the London Blitz. If you haven’t seen it, you should, and if you have but can’t remember the scene where, say, all the local boys line up soberly to take a peek down Pauline’s pants, or the whole class has to recite their nine times table while wearing gas masks, it may be time to see it again. This film opens with one of the final scenes from that film; the one where Bill turns up for school only to discover it’s been bombed and the playground is full of kids jubilantly punching the air and exclaiming, ‘Thank you, Adolf!’ Then it picks up the thread nearly a decade later when Bill (Callum Turner, delivering an uninspiring performance as possibly dictated by such an uninspiring role) has been conscripted into national service on the cusp of the Korean war. While at the army base, he teams up with fellow conscript Percy, as played by Caleb Landry Jones, who overacts in such a bizarrely jittery way that, had I been in regular contact with Mr Boorman, I’d have certainly advised him to rein in Landry Jones, and do it now, without delay. (It pays to be in regular contact with me, I think Mr Boorman is now discovering, to his cost.)
The pair set about wooing girls (bit of a yawn) and, in Bill’s instance, falling for the posh, unattainable, slightly mad, underwritten one (see last parenthesis) but, mostly, they’re preoccupied with getting their own back on their immediate army superior, Sgt Major Bradley (David Thewlis), who is a stickler for the rules and alert to even the most minor infraction. This is intended as pure japery, but, as Bill and Percy obsessively torment him, and go ridiculously out of their way to torment him, and as Bradley is so obviously suffering from some form of PTSD, their behaviour seems cruel and mean-spirited; so much so that I lost all sympathy for them. I didn’t know what to expect from Percy, but from Bill? I expected better.
The tone, like I said, is all over the place, travelling from buddy movie to sentimental romance via coarse comedy moments that are pure Carry On, as when Percy and Bill — oh, Bill, how you disappoint — climb a ladder to spy through a window on nurses undressing. (See last parenthesis, as well as the parenthesis before that.) But whereas the scene featuring Pauline in Hope & Glory was all about innocence, this felt pervy and violating and misguided. Bill does return home to find his family where we last saw them, which was living on the river at Shepperton, but his mother is no longer Sarah Miles as his mother is Sinead Cusack, and while Sinead Cusack is a fine and accomplished actress, if you’ve had Sarah Miles, so to speak — she played the mother in the original — you simply don’t want anyone else. Meanwhile, his sister, Dawn, has turned out quite an idiot too and we must assume grandpa has died, which is a great pity, as grandpa was deliciously insane and shot at mice over breakfast. I miss grandpa.
Queen & Country, like Hope & Glory, is anecdotal and episodic, but Hope & Glory added up to something. It had a point: war is horrible, but for a young boy with a growing shrapnel collection, it can offer joy, wonder, excitement. This, in contrast, does no more than uninterestingly meander, while taking an uninteresting Bill along with it. I can’t now properly recall a single scene, whereas I can remember scenes from Hope & Glory as if it were yesterday, which, as I rewatched it immediately prior to this, actually was yesterday, but even so. I can’t remember Queen & Country as if it were yesterday, and that was yesterday too. I think we’ll just have to conclude that you shouldn’t take up a story again or revive a beloved character unless you have a bloody good reason. I’d have certainly told Mr Boorman that had we been in regular contact. More fool him.