Good filmmaking has become so rare that John Boorman’s Queen & Country — a classically made autobiography — almost seems odd. This sequel to his childhood memoir Hope & Glory (1987), which was about surviving the Blitz in England during WWII, depicts Boorman’s young adulthood. As a conscript in the British military in the early-1950s Korean conflict, Boorman didn’t go to war but remained stationed at an army base. Looking back, his life seems charmed (full of soldierly folderol and hijinks with sexy nurses), yet it taught difficult lessons that would serve him well for appreciating his family of fellow eccentrics and in his artistic pursuit to better understand human behavior.
Queen & Country’s oddity starts with its expounding on ethical, even traditional, virtues through its rebellious protagonist Bill Rohan (Callum Turner), the film’s young Boorman figure. Even Bill’s gravest home-front experiences — an awareness of post-war malaise — are presented in a serene, light tone. Each sweetly recalled segment of the story straddles different genres at once: The service comedy of defying Bill’s superior officers turns into class satire defending his brash best friend Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones), which connects to the coming-of-age comedy of Bill discovering romantic love.
Boorman, now 82 years old, has reached a stage of filmmaking mastery and humane reason where genre distinctions — like class distinctions — dissolve. This is not unexpected for the artist responsible for Excalibur (the most sensuous of all Arthurian films), The Heretic (a purified, beneficent correction to The Exorcist), and Where the Heart Is (a satire on economic collapse disguised as an enchanted domestic comedy). Its quirkiness is also serious, as befits a director celebrated for the scintillating, kinetic dramas Deliverance and Point Blank. But Queen & Country shows more than storytelling audacity; there’s wisdom behind it.
Boorman personalizes citizenship. As Queen & Country’s title indicates, he examines the poles of personal and national identity. Coming as he did from the upper middle class, his youthful rebellion was a lark derived from privilege. When on leave, retreating to his family’s estate on the Thames, they all watch the coronation of young Elizabeth Windsor and there’s specific admiration for her dedication to “a life of service.” This does not contradict the humor Boorman finds in his enlisted-man antics, but does measure fun by an inescapable sense of obligation. Bill’s dawning maturity comes, in part, from enjoying rowdy camaraderie and realizing its root Englishman principles.
It is Boorman’s sense of grace that takes this beyond a simple-minded Tory film; his perception and generosity are, indeed, rare. Imagine Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion combined with Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky. Those profound films about our common humanity, common goals, are matched in Boorman’s light touch here, balanced by his acceptance of life’s unease. Understanding suffering enriches Queen & Country beyond Hope & Glory; it overcomes the latter film’s childhood nostalgia. Bill’s compassion for Percy’s anxiety and his commander Sergeant Major Bradley’s (David Thewlis) desperate regimentation shades and deepens the film’s mirth.
For American moviegoers, Queen & Country has uncanny synchronicity with the popularly successful American Sniper. Refusing any partisan cynicism, Boorman — a far greater artist than the canny Clint Eastwood — portrays the innate fellowship that the media class rejected and disparaged in its anti-military attacks on American Sniper (which even went so far as to defame Chris Kyle). Queen & Country asserts patriotism without jingoism. Bill’s irreverence criticizes military custom in the manner of impetuous youth, yet he gradually obtains an appreciation for his nation’s basic beliefs.
Excalibur validated cultural history through exquisite mythology. Here, the lesson is felt through superb characterizations: Tall, dark-haired Bill is so boyish his innocence is his morality; he nicknames randy, ginger Percy “the master of disrespect” (Jones’s wily performance recalls a rascally young Barry Fitzgerald). Lovely Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) counters feminine mystique with recognizable sensitivity (she evokes a younger Kim Cattrall in Boorman’s superb The Tiger’s Tail — still unreleased in the U.S.); and Thewlis’s Bradley is movingly punctilious in showing British dedication to a passing way of life. (At long last, it’s a worthy flip side to Thewlis’s unforgettably dark characterization of Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked).
“A life of service” well describes John Boorman’s film legacy. His filmmaking gift (Pauline Kael has called him “a giant”) has always been committed to the complex virtues of global humanitarianism. Sound “liberal”? Boorman’s art — like musician Bryan Ferry’s — won’t let liberals place ownership on artistry or humanism. In this era of mountebanks like Paul Thomas Anderson and Richard Linklater, Boorman reminds us that film art requires commitment to human truth. On a date to see a premiere of Akira Kurosawa’s 1953 Rashomon, Ophelia asks Bill/Boorman “How can you be so passionate about something so abstract?” Love of cinema and truth are memorialized in Boorman’s numinous final shot. How movies manifest abstract notions of patriotism, love, family, respect, and beauty is the definition of good filmmaking.
The Academy Awards are breathing down our necks this weekend and the occasion should not pass without saluting British director Mike Leigh’s bold summation of the entire awards-season process. When accepting the British Academy’s career-achievement prize a couple of weeks ago, Leigh told the assembled swells, “To be able capture life and share it with audiences . . . is glorious, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” forcefully reminding them of the privilege they take for granted. Leigh’s film Mr. Turner received no prize, yet he thanked the organization as “a democratic gang and your taste is your prerogative.” Beautiful. Leigh’s poised equanimity got to the heart of film-industry egotism.
Leigh found the perfect term that conservatives have been searching for to define the liberal pretenses so egregiously displayed at events like the Oscars and the BAFTAs. Hollywood’s political slant isn’t a matter of good taste or even humanitarianism any longer; it’s the hegemony of a democratic gang that pretends to have populist regard, hiding thuggish arrogance underneath all those designer clothes. Once again, this year’s Oscar winners will not reflect public popularity. The democratic gang will dictate, but thanks to Leigh, it has been exposed.
This makes me recall Boorman in 1988 sitting anxiously through the Oscar presentation, which nominated Hope & Glory in several categories. Boorman’s face honestly expressed a desire to win but the big awards went to The Last Emperor and Bernardo Bertolucci, a director to whom any filmmaker could lose without shame. Boorman’s ultimate victory is that Queen & Country surpasses Hope & Glory and The Last Emperor. It is also superior to every movie nominated for Oscars this weekend.
— Armond White, a film critic who writes about movies for National Review Online, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.