Sunday, October 05, 2014

NYFF ’14: Queen and Country

In 1952, the commanding Winston Churchill was back in 10 Downing Street and war once again entangled the Allies, this time in Korea. He may not have understood it at the time, but the Korean War was a positive development for John Boorman, because it eventually provided the inspiration for his follow-up to the Oscar nominated Hope and Glory. Nine years later, Bill Rohan commences his compulsory military service in Boorman’s Queen and Country (trailer here), which screens as a special Film Comment presentation at the 52nd New York Film Festival.

Nine year old Rohan would never say the National Socialists never did anything for him, after an errant bomb destroys his school in the end of Hope and Glory. Q&C picks up at that point, rapidly fast-forwarding to his service years. British troops are shipping out to Korea, but through a twist of fate, Rohan and his volatile mate Percy Hapgood are assigned to clerical duties on the base.

While this posting suits Rohan far better than the Korean Peninsula, he still has to contend with Sergeant Major Bradley, a by-the-book stickler, who is constantly bringing Rohan and Hapgood up before the increasingly weary Major Cross on minor rules violations. While Hapgood and the scrounging Private Redmond plot against the Sergeant Major, Rohan pursues an aristocratic beauty in town, whom he will call Ophelia until she corrects him. Scandals and controversies will erupt on the base as England prepares for the coronation of a new monarch, signifying the beginning of a new era.

While Q&C is rather episodically structurally, Boorman really ties it all together in the closing scenes. Clearly, the film is suffused with unabashed nostalgia, but there are also moments of grace and beauty. It is the sequel nobody was expecting, but it leaves us anticipating a third installment of the Rohan chronicles.

While we did not realize it when Hope and Glory was nominated for five Oscars, Rohan may now be aptly compared to Neil Simon’s Eugene Jerome. Just as Hope and Brighton Beach Memoirs cover their surrogates’ formative years, Q&C and Biloxi Blues follow their military stints. Of course, Jerome finds success as comedy writer in Broadway Bound, whereas Rohan’s fascination with the Shepperton film studio not far from his family’s new home seems to foreshadow much.

Unlike the genial wise-cracking Jerome, Rohan is undeniably the blandest figure in Q&C, but that is understandable. We always see ourselves as dullest person in our own stories. We are the workaday pluggers and everyone else must be the cut-ups and cads. So it is with Boorman and Rohan, played serviceably by Callum Turner. In contrast, a nearly unrecognizable David Thewlis delivers a truly year’s best, Oscar worthy performance as the tightly wound Sergeant Major. Although he bears the brunt of most of the film’s comedic jibes, he also is its most potent source of pathos.

Frankly, Q&C is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to its supporting cast. Richard E. Grant is a delight as Major Cross, doing his usual sly, sophisticated thing, except even more so. Caleb Landry Jones’ Hapgood serves as a suitably destabilizing wild card, while Vanessa Kirby projects the allure and world weariness one could only expect from a young woman who had lived through the emotional travails of war.

Yes, Q&C is old fashioned, but it is wholly satisfying. It is a lovingly crafted period production that perfectly recreates the still distressed look of post-war Britain. It is also a pleasure to watch the accomplished ensemble bring their humanly flawed characters to life. Enthusiastically recommended, Queen and Country screens this Tuesday (10/7) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYFF.