In a nutshell: Queen & Country is a funny, off-beat and hugely entertaining mauling of the institution of the military
Featuring: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat Shortt, David Thewlis, Aimee-Ffion Edwards, Vanessa Kirby, Tamsin Egerton
Writer/Director: John Boorman
2015-16 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Joondalup Pines: 8-13 Dec, 8pm
It’s hard to know what to make of this oddly-toned film in its initial stages. It’s a concoction of elements that are not often combined: comedy, satire, nostalgia, coming-of-age.
Then there is the weird and unsettling manner of one of the principle characters, Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). An irreverent, iconoclastic and reluctant young conscript at a boot camp in the south of England preparing greenhorns for the Korean war, he seems to be constantly on the verge of apoplexy – wild-eyed, a vein ticking ominously on his temple, his complexion florid, head cocked to one side or wobbling randomly in different directions as if mounted on a tense spring. It’s as if he’s perpetually straining to extricate himself from an invisible straitjacket. Very disconcerting.
Indeed, it takes a while to shake off the sense that this is a case of over-acting that could become tiresome, but as the film progresses the quirks and angst become merely part of the larger enigma of the character. It’s quite a feat of characterisation and performance that Percy emerges from his introductory stages as the multi-faceted odd-bod he is, someone you accept and want to know more about, rather than one of those try-hard eccentric–for-eccentric’s-sake creatures of fiction that irritate in their self-consciousness and implausibility.
Percy is so fascinating in his hyperactive weirdness that he sucks some oxygen from the lead character, Bill (Callum Turner), a fellow conscript who shares his mocking contempt for the army and its rituals and authority figures. But if Bill is straight man to Percy’s wackiness, that’s not to say he’s straight! He’s every bit as subversive as Percy, but just a little less reckless and a little more intelligent in the way he plays the game.
It is a game, this army stuff, and writer/director John Boorman delights in presenting it as a pretty bloody silly one. Early in the piece, Bill describes the marching drills as “exhilarating when you get it right…like a dance troupe.” This humorous laying bare of the ridiculousness of military codes and modes of behaviour recurs throughout, contrasting starkly with the abruptly serious and tragic consequences of soldiering that confront Bill in a hospital ward towards the end of the movie.
The most savage humourous attacks are reserved for the higher ranking officers. One is an institutionalised stickler for regulations who levels charges at subordinates with OCD zeal, there is a petty-minded despot who channels all his time and energy into hunting down the impudent thief in the ranks who stole his cherished unit clock (Percy, naturally), and a head honcho whose professional belief has long ago given way to cynicism and weary contempt, and whose sole job satisfaction is in belittling others with withering sarcasm or otherwise exercising his power with ogre-like cruelty when the opportunity arises. Indeed, even Bill and Percy, who have minor positions of authority when training new conscripts, are not immune from occasional abuse of their power at the minor expense of their subordinates. No one is above corruption, then; everyone’s humanity is endangered. Nature of the beast…
When released from barracks for some R&R, Bill and Percy set out to lend their hollow boasts of sexual conquest some substance. They hit on a couple of nurses they meet in a cinema, and while one of them, the cheeky Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), is a good match for Bill, he spoils the party when he falls instantly for an aloof, elegant older woman “with sad eyes” in the row in front, whom he names Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton). So begins an obsessive pursuit. Ophelia turns out to be as damaged as she is beautiful and mysterious, and leads her stricken youthful suitor a not-so-merry dance.
On the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, Bill takes leave and returns home to his family, who live on an island in the Thames, inviting Ophelia and Percy along for the occasion. It is apparent that irreverence, subversion and taking the piss are family traits Bill has inherited, the best exemplar being his 30-something older sister Dawn (played with wicked relish by Vanessa Kirby). This effervescent interlude is the high point of the film, taking in some authentic period details such as Bill’s father buying a TV so the family can watch the Coronation. However, no one seems very interested in the new Queen, with Ophelia, who drops in for only an hour courtesy of a chauffeur-driven Rolls, Dawn and her often uncomfortable and confrontational wit, and the frenetic and dissolute Percy stealing the show.
As funny, entertaining and off-beat a period piece as this film is, it is also an enraged mauling of the institution of the military, and ultimately a potent and timely anti-war statement. If Queen & Country is to be John Boorman’s swansong, he’s gone out with an ear-ringing bang, wielding humour as a weapon to lethal effect. Laugh, enjoy, and when the smoke settles, be prepared for some ruminating.
Movie website: www.queenandcountrythefilm.com/
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