“Queen and Country” begins with a reprise of one of the most famous scenes in British cinema. It’s that magical moment from John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” when a schoolboy, living in London during The Blitz, turns a corner and is stunned by a scene of delirious chaos.
The Germans have bombed his school, and children are screaming — in delight — throwing their papers and books in the air, every child’s fantasy brought to life.
There’s nothing that jolly, jaunty or joyous in writer-director Boorman’s long-gestating sequel to that semi-autobiographical 1987 film. “Queen” is set in the early 1950s, just as Elizabeth was taking the throne, with Boorman’s hero just old enough to be conscripted into the Korean War era British Army. And while Boorman’s picture has the hallmarks of many a post-war “service comedy,” about training, feuding with superior officers and dating hijinx, the elder statesman of British cinema has conjured up a more melancholy and measured sequel weighted with adulthood and freighted with some of Boorman’s own doubts and regrets.
William “Bill” Rohan, played by Callum Turner of “The Borgias,” is still living in the enchanted mid-Thames River house “The Spinx,” where he and his mother and siblings decamped after a German bomb destroyed their house nine years before. The avid movie buff is a shy 18 year-old, unsure around girls, hoping the Army missed sending him a notice.
They haven’t, and his years-long aquatic idyll is over. On his first in boot camp, Bill meets and befriends Percy (Caleb Landry Jones), a conscript who is even more of a malcontent. Boorman serves up some standard issue service comedy gags — inept marching, a twitchy, martinet sergeant (David Thewlis), a long-suffering major (Richard E. Grant) and a role model Redmond.
Redmond (Pat Shortt of “Calvary”) is a “skiver,” a professional slouch, malingerer, “goldbrick” in U.S. Army slang. He has mastered the art of getting out of Army work and hard duties. He’s dodged being shipped to Korea, and he is the one who can help the new lads fend off discipline, duty and combat.
Bill falls for “the unattainable” girl, who lets him call her “Ophelia” (Tamsin Egerton), a posh, socially-connected college student. She is, as she always is in such “comedies,” the one he confesses his deepest feelings to — his hatred of Sgt. Bradley, who is forever dragging Percy and Bill and Redmond in front of the Major for minor “insolent” infractions, his disenchantment with Army life.
“Is there nothing good you can take from it?” she wonders. That’s when he talks about the cameraderie that is something like love shared by men who train to go to war together.
Boorman brings back one surviving member of the 1987 film’s cast, David Hayman (as Bill’s dad). Sinéad Cusack replaces Sarah Miles as Bill’s mom, Vanessa Kirby takes over for Sammi Davis as Bill’s war bride sister, Dawn, who married a Canadian, had children but never lost her wild streak.
And the esteemed John Standing (“V for Vendetta”) has the unenviable task of taking over for the late Ian Bannen, whose gruff, grumpy sparkle as Grandfather George is sorely missed.
“Queen and Country” stands on its own, for what it’s worth. But the filmmaker’s mixed emotions about the Britain that was lost in the war and buried in the less focused, less disciplined 1950s robs “Queen and Country” of the lightness and the life that energized the sentimental original film. Bill’s “discovery” of how movies are made and resolve to get into the profession are dead moments that could have been giddy.
The scenery is still stunning, but there’s little of the brio of a filmmaker who went on to make “Deliverance,” “Excalibur” and the glorious “Hope and Glory” in it.
Cast: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat , David Thewlis, Richard E. Grant, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton
Credits: Written and directed by John Boorman. A BBC Films release.
Running time: 1:55