By Johnny Pomatto
I’ve been feeling rather patriotic as of late, though not particularly to my own country. While recent films like “American Sniper” have been accused of being propaganda and a lure to justify our ongoing wars, other films found at our local art house theaters have inspired me to sign up with a very different army. There’s a fuzzy, black beret with my name on it somewhere in England, and while these two films I’ve seen this week highlight battles that are just as morally ambiguous as the ones we find ourselves in now, there’s an excitement and purity that I can’t help but be thrilled by, and you might be as well when you see these films, the two very best that I’ve seen in this new year.
QUEEN AND COUNTRY
We don’t usually associate war with joy, excitement, and childlike wonder, but in 1987 John Boorman made a film with the same nostalgic tone of “A Christmas Story,” only Boorman’s winsome memories were about the London bombings at the start of World War II. That film was “Hope and Glory,” and seeing children run through bombed-out houses as if they were playgrounds was perhaps my earliest exposure to the concept of war. Boorman’s film perfectly introduced me to the piece of history while filtering out the horrors through an innocent and comedic lens of a child. Now, 28 years later, Boorman has revisited his memories with a sequel to his landmark film, and this new film, QUEEN AND COUNTRY, is every bit as wonderful as its predecessor and once again treats the world of war and military service with a feather-light touch.
QUEEN AND COUNTRY follows the child protagonist of “Hope and Glory” to 1951, where young Bill Rohan, (here played by Callum Turner), has inherited his father’s position in the British military, not in battle, but as a typing instructor at the local base. Being far away from the horrors of the Korean War, the spirit back at home is casual and lighthearted. Most of the soldiers left behind at the base are comically unfit for battle, so they spend their free time clowning around and playing pranks on their exhausted and ambivalent superior officers, (David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant). These hilarious antics capture some of the rebellious, unruly attitude seen in films like Robert Altman’s “MASH,” only, you know, more posh. But Bill has more on his mind than causing trouble with his partner in crime Percy, the electric Caleb Landry Jones who we should start paying more attention to. Bill hopes his army uniform will be useful in attracting ladies, and soon he falls hard for the mysterious Ophelia, a vulnerable and damaged woman from a higher class played by Tamsin Egerton. Since he can’t actively make a contribution to the war, Bill is determined to use his heroics to save the depressed Ophelia from herself. Even his imaginary, surrogate battles don’t live up to the glory he was promised to receive as one of England’s elite soldiers.
Though the film takes place in a time when England is first starting to feel distanced from the war that nearly destroyed their country, World War II looms over this whole movie and every character in it. All the men in the army joined up over memories of a war that was essential to fight for mere survival’s sake. Now they find themselves facing a new world, and involved in a war that they don’t quite understand the importance of. Bill can’t even bring himself to form an opinion on the Korean War. Thewlis’ Major Bradley is fighting another battle altogether with posttraumatic stress. He can’t cope with the idea that he was once able to gun men down but now has trouble sorting through papers across his desk. Memories of the war are even prevalent at Bill’s home, where his sister Dawn has fallen out of love with the Canadian soldier she ran away with ten years earlier, while his mother is still romantically pining for her neighbor that looked after her while her husband was serving his country. This is after all, like its predecessor, a film about love and family, and the scenes at the Rohan household are an absolute delight. Not having seen the original film won’t affect your enjoyment of the continuing stories or the past events referenced in the film. Everything that happens in QUEEN AND COUNTRY are the kind of moments that would be shmaltz-inducing subplots in a more serious war film, but here they’re the central drive of the story, and I only wish they didn’t have to end.
Boorman’s surrogate, Bill, is given a poetic button at the end of the film, suggesting where his and Boorman’s own life will lead, but I lament that we won’t get to see future installments that can tell their story in more detail. At 82 years old, Boorman has declared that this will be his final film, and it’s a fitting one. Perhaps if he hadn’t waited 28 years to follow up with the Rohan family we could have observed them through the ages and into future generations. But I’m so grateful that Boorman did conclude his tale and show us a war film without a moment of fighting, but plenty on display of the things at home worth fighting for. It’s a beautiful film and I would urge you to seek it out.
It’s hard to imagine one’s city becoming a war zone. This is a terrifying reality found in so many countries, and as an American I’ve always found the concept incredibly foreign. Watching director Yan Demange’s new thriller ’71, I was thunderstruck by how easily a peaceful neighborhood can suddenly become a backdrop for the kind of chaotic violence we usually imagine being exclusive to places like the middle east. However, in 1971 Belfast, the world saw a western country nearly destroy itself, and bombs going off and gunfights on one’s street became a regular occurrence. Jack O’Connell plays Private Gary Hook, a British soldier sent on assignment to Belfast, Ireland to help keep the peace between the Catholics and the Protestants. At first relieved that he’s to be stationed in his own country rather than abroad, he soon finds out that the streets of Belfast are more violent and dangerous than just about anywhere else he could possibly be.
Within minutes of Hook’s arrival, a protest turns into a full-scale riot, and the erupting violence requires the British soldiers to immediately pack up and retreat, only Hook is left behind in the confusion. The rest of the film chronicles his harrowing night as he tries to survive in a city full of people determined to kill him. There are no real heroes and villains in this film. No side can claim the moral high ground above another. Hook doesn’t have time to reason with anyone or gage their politics when judging whom he reveals himself to. Even a child may have IRA connections that could lead him into a deathtrap. Staying hidden until morning seems like it should be an easy task, but Demange’s film never gives us a moment to catch our breath. Violence can and does break out at any moment. As I often do in a film like this, I kept putting myself in the hero’s shoes, imagining what I would have to do to get from point A to point B without dying. More often than not, even the most simple of choices that I would make in my head would have resulted in my immediate death. I frequently looked at my watch, not because I was bored, but because I was counting down the minutes to when the ordeal would end and the tense feelings that were plaguing me would leave me with some relief.
Jack O’Connell is a fantastic actor on track to becoming a mega star. Angelina Jolie tried and failed to jumpstart his career a few months ago by casting him in the lead of her film “Unbroken,” but it’s in roles like this, as well as last year’s equally intense prison drama “Starred Up” where O’Connell really shines. His undeniable good looks are covered with a thin veil of roughness that make it easy to imagine that he’s been in a few real fights in his day. His characters are often so fearless that they come across as masochistic at times, making us wish that he would give up his fight just in order for his torment would end. The intensity of the film does sometimes work against itself, as the action moves the plot forward more than the human connections that Private Hook makes, so we aren’t left with as much insight into the IRA conflict as past films like “The Crying Game” or “In the Name of the Father” have given us. Great Irish character actors like David Wilmot get lost in patterns of violence, espionage, and betrayal, never getting scenes that slow down enough to make them the fully formed characters that they’re so capable of playing. Still, ’71 is a thrilling and terrifying experience, and as the credits rolled at the end of the film, I found myself just as exhausted and spent as its central character. I wasn’t physically being pursued like he was, and yet I was still quite out of breath.