Film reviews: Queen & Country and London Road

David Gritten

Saga film critic David Gritten enjoys John Boorman’s post-war National Service saga Queen & Country, and takes a look at London Road.

One of Britain’s greatest film-makers in the post-war era, writer-director John Boorman is best known for his strongly autobiographical 1987 comedy-drama Hope and Glory, set in Blitz-era London, featuring an adventuresome nine year old boy named Bill Rohan who finds the bombing of his home city an oddly liberating experience.

Now, almost three decades later, Boorman has finally returned to Bill; his new film Queen & Country starts with Bill being called up for National Service in 1952, with the strong possibility of being sent to Korea.

Boorman has saddled himself with quite a task here. Queen & Country is positioned as a companion piece to Hope and Glory, which many people regard as their favourite British film. (It was also lauded abroad, with five Oscar nominations.) I’d say right away that it’s not in the same league as its predecessor; but I’d also add swiftly that it’s still well worth seeing.

Boorman chooses a famous scene from Hope and Glory for his prologue, in which Bill and his classmates arrive at school to find it’s been levelled by a German bomb, and react delightedly.  Bill grins in close-up while another boy shouts: “Thank you, Adolf!” Then Bill’s image dissolves and changes into the face of an 18 year old.

The mood of Queen & Country is very different, capturing the sense of resentment felt by many people in the post-war years. They had fought patriotically at great cost, but sensed they had been short-changed. In the training camp at Aldershot where Bill is sent, this attitude manifests itself in an insolence towards authority figures.  

Bill (a sympathetic Callum Turner) does not end up in Korea, but along with his erratic best friend Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) is promoted to sergeant and assigned to teach typing to newer recruits. There’s romance in this life (a couple of eager nurses play their part) and a chance to cause mischief with the camp’s ruling order.

Bill indulges himself in subversive chatter about the futility of war, which gets him court-martialled, but the charges do not stick. He falls headlong for a neurotic upper-class girl known as Ophelia, who has an older lover. Various army colleagues skive off work, get arrested for theft, or suffer a breakdown. Yet the dominant tone is more comic than searingly dramatic.

The star turn here is David Thewlis as a repressed, unsympathetic sergeant-major who upholds authority at all costs, and looks to army regulations as a template for living his life and everyone else’s. Queen & Country is a likable film, though it sometimes feels like a series of episodes (often jokey ones) strung together rather than a satisfying whole. No Hope and Glory, then – but a wryly intelligent, above average entertainment.

London Road, a taut, uneasy drama about a real-life neighbourhood in Ipswich where five prostitutes were murdered by a serial killer in 2006, has already been acclaimed as a stunning piece of stage work; its first incarnation was as a National Theatre production four years ago. It has now been adapted for film, retaining many of the actors in its original cast, and remains a moving and (in the end) curiously uplifting experience.

Its dialogue is based on verbatim testimony from people in the London Road area, discussing the terrible events that happened there, and their aftermath. Their conversational speech, with all its pauses, stutters and other imperfections, was set to music, which is half-spoken, half sung, often in unison. Thus are residents, police, local reporters and surviving prostitutes given a semi-operatic voice.

It’s original and arresting. The traumatised residents are never patronised, nor sanctified.  Their views are candidly conveyed, without judgement.

This may sound grim, but in the film (and play) as in real life, the London Road residents gradually become a closer community in the wake of this horror; street fairs are organised, hanging baskets become commonplace in front yards. 

The film can be recommended for those who never saw the stage version, with the proviso that the obvious artifice in the presentation of the characters’ dialogue feels more of an easy fit on stage than on film.

Having said that, all the acting performances are terrific – led by Olivia Colman as an outspoken neighbourhood watch organiser, and Paul Thornley as an enigmatic, solitary character initially distrusted by his neighbours. Tom Hardy also contributes a terrific brief performance as a taxi driver who is obsessed by serial killers – but is emphatically not one himself. It’s fair to say you won’t see another film remotely like London Road all year.

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