If any movie is harder to pull off than a sequel or a memoir, it’s the sequel to a memoir, which is what writer-director John Boorman attempts with “Queen and Country,” a look back at his years serving in the British armed forces during the Korean War. (Boorman stayed at home, teaching typing, while most of his fellow trainees were shipped off to combat.)
Boorman’s first stab at big-screen autobiography, 1987’s “Hope and Glory,” managed to enchant audiences around the world and rack up an impressive array of awards and nominations. We’ve seen many films that portray the horror and inhumanity of war as viewed through a child’s eyes, but Boorman took the revolutionary tack of chronicling himself as a little kid having a grand old time living in London during the Blitz.
“Queen and Country,” alas, never shifts the paradigm all that much. In fact, if you’ve seen “Summer of ’42” or any number of nostalgic reminiscences about boys becoming men in uniform, you won’t be surprised by much that Boorman has to offer this time around. Still, he’s a skillful storyteller, and the world of Bill Rowan (his on-screen counterpart) was so indelibly etched in “Hope and Glory” that there’s still pleasure to be taken in revisiting his life.
Now grown up and drafted into the army, Bill (played this time by Callum Turner) must reluctantly leave the family’s homestead on an island in the Thames and go through basic training. There, he immediately befriends Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones, “X-Men: First Class”), a mischievous troublemaker who aspires to be a skiver, someone who survives military service by expending the least amount of effort.
Percy chases every available skirt, but Bill immediately becomes smitten with a mysterious blonde (Tamsin Egerton, “Love, Rosie”) whom he dubs “Ophelia” when the two finally meet and she is cagey about sharing her first name. She will, of course, remain ethereal and unobtainable in the requisite manner of the First Love character in this sort of movie, but Egerton, to her credit, imbues this archetype with as much of a pulse as she can muster.
As with “Hope and Glory,” the film offers less of an arching plot than a series of vignettes and character moments; Bill and Percy torment/are tormented by Bradley (David Thewlis), a sergeant-major who lives and dies by the rule book; Percy drives the base’s superior office to lunacy by stealing a clock gifted by Queen Victoria; Bill’s sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby, taking over for Sammi Davis) visits from Canada, although it appears she has little intention of returning to her husband and children there; Bill’s mother (Sinéad Cusack, in the role originated by Sarah Miles) pines from afar for her wartime lover.
On the whole, it’s a lovely little cinematic time capsule, capturing moments like the family’s first television set (purchased so they can watch the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II) and the leisurely Sunday traffic of punts and rowboats on the Thames. The fact that it’s been almost 30 years since “Hope and Glory,” even though the stories take place only nine years apart, doesn’t cause too many headaches for Boorman, although David Hayman (the one holdover from the previous film, as Bill’s dad) has been given a particularly unconvincing dye job and the late Ian Bannen is definitely missed as Bill’s grandfather. (John Standing does his best to fill those shoes.)
Cinematographer Seamus Deasy (“The General”) gives the film a nostalgic glow — more honeyed than sepia — and Richard E. Grant gets some wonderfully deadpan moments as a military higher-up who finds himself exasperated when his time is occupied by his underlings’ petty infighting. It’s Landry Jones who steals the movie, though; Boorman makes Bill so quiet and reactive here that it’s easy for the second banana to snag the spotlight, particularly with an actor this charismatic and breezily entertaining.
Breeziness is a quality “Queen and Country” has plenty of, making for a lovely journey that never ends up anywhere particularly groundbreaking. It’s never going to be more than a footnote to the far superior “Hope and Glory,” but sometimes, when you’re feeling nostalgic it can be fun to dig out the other, less interesting photo album.