Review: Queen and Country

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DIR/WRI: John Boorman • PRO: John Boorman, Kieran Corrigan • DOP: Seamus Deasy • ED: Ron Davis • DES: Tim Pannen • MUS: Stephen McKeon • DES: Anthony Pratt • CAST: Callum Turner, Caleb Landry Jones, Pat Shortt

 

It has been almost 28 years since John Boorman’s semi-autobiographical work Hope and Glory (1987) brought us the story of nine year old Bill Rohan’s life during World War II. Boorman’s sequel Queen and Country opens in 1951 and we again meet Bill, now aged 18, as he is conscripted into the British Army against the backdrop of the Korean war.

Boorman’s film is beautifully shot and brings the period faithfully to life, conveying the dread, frustration and resentment resulting from the obligation of two years national service on the part of young men.

Callum Turner’s performance as Bill is consistently engaging, as is that of David Thewlis in the role of Bradley, a to-the-letter army man railing against the insubordination he encounters from the conscripts. Indeed, it appears intended for Bradley to initially evoke derision, but I often found myself out in sympathy with him.

Bill’s roommate Percy Hapgood is a striking character, if only for the fact that both he and the exaggerated nature of Caleb Landry Jones’ performance appeared somewhat at odds with the rest of the film. There is no doubt Percy is unhinged, and this makes the strength of his friendship with the sensitive, gently humorous Bill hard, at times, to fully invest in.

While the film does offer something of a window on post-war peacetime Britain, most of the action takes place in the barracks where Bill and Percy get into scrapes with varying consequences and often with the help of skiver and trickster Redmond, performed brilliantly by the exquisite Pat Shortt. They rarely leave it, and when they do, there is a limited glimpse of the world outside, thus conveying the claustrophobic nature of their young lives. In such instances, the drama centres mainly on their attempts to woo members of the opposite sex and these are scenes which prove endearing.

There is an interesting conflict between the senior army personnel’s vision of nation, war and military service and those of Bill in particular which adds weight to the proceedings. Despite the military subject matter, the film is bathed in a nostalgia which, while aesthetically pleasing, when combined with efforts to make the work comedic, tends to dilute the gravitas of some of its more tense moments. The film is, however, bookended with two meta-scenes in which a camera is seen shooting footage on the Thames, reminding us that what we are seeing is a dramatisation.

While the humour and nostalgic ambience are there, and identification is fostered via the notable use of close-ups which work effectively as portraiture and encourage an intimacy with the characters, it is regretful that this film left me feeling rather detached from it. Individual performances from those such as Richard E. Grant (Major Cross), David Hayman, who reprises his role as Clive Rohan, and the aforementioned Callum Turner and Pat Shortt were excellent, but when looked at as a whole, I felt the piece didn’t entirely hang together as it could.

Unwarranted spontaneous and exhuberant laughter, Percy’s often jester-like performativity, and the oscillation on the part of the military between farcical silliness and faithful adherence to military mores sometimes jarred, though perhaps these incongruities are easier accepted if viewed from the perspectives of the young Bill and Percy.

The pleasures of Queen and Country lie in its beauty, its performances, its privileging of personal perspectives and its gentle look at a period in British history which is seldom portrayed.

 

Emma Hynes

114 minutes

15A (See IFCO for details)

Queen and Country is released 5th June 2015

Queen and Country – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Byzantium

Byzantium, film

 

DIR: Neil Jordan  WRI: Moira Buffini • PRO: Sam Englebardt, William D. Johnson, Elizabeth Karlsen, Alan Moloney, Stephen Woolley • DOP: Sean Bobbitt • ED: Tony Lawson • DES: Simon Elliott • Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Arterton, Caleb Landry Jones, Sam Riley

 

Neil Jordan returns to cinemas for the first time in four years with this neo-gothic vampire tale, just as that particular genre begins to sink below the zeitgeist waves. We are now post-Twilight, with True Blood and The Vampire Diaries in their second death throes.

 

But there’s life in the undead dog yet. Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist vampire art-house romcom Only Lovers Left Alive just received deserved praise at Cannes, and while Jordan’s work is flawed, it’s an admirable piece of cinema nevertheless. And why shouldn’t Jordan latch on at the last moment – his 1994 take on the myth, Interview with the Vampire, is as much responsible for the vampire boom that flowed from Buffy to Twilight as any film.
 
The film stars Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan as a wandering mother/daughter vampire team, Clara and Eleanor, constantly on the move to evade from those who would uncover their true identities, and those who already know it. A moral pair, they work as sort of Angels of Death, only feeding on the terminally ill or the extremely elderly – a form of vampiric euthanasia. Clara, eternally voluptuous, trades on her body to keep the duo in housing and out of trouble. Eleanor, eternally 16, searches for meaning in her never-ending life, tortured internally by the things she has seen and done.Their wanderings bring them full circle to the sleepy English seaside town where their story began 150 years earlier, prompting a series of fractured flashbacks that give us a glimpse into their pasts. Clara’s being condemned to imprisonment in a brothel in her earlier life is echoed as she turns a run-down hotel in the present, named Byzantium, into a whorehouse with herself as madam. Eleanor starts at a new school where her creative writing assignments draw suspicious glances and her relationship with sickly classmate Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) causes her cursed heart to skip a beat.
 
A gorgeous production, shot in some curious locations, Byzantium looks as good as anything Neil Jordan has made before. Ever-reliable cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame) excels in lighting the dark and murky streets of modern Britain, while sadly bringing little life to its nineteenth century counterpart. Perhaps the most in-your-face achievement of Byzantium is the remarkable varieties of ways the crew have found to light and shoot Gemma Arterton’s cleavage. Jordan has never been one to shy away from sexuality, but here the obsession with Arterton’s bosom is beyond distracting, the centre point of far too many frames. In one of the film’s most dramatic sequences, a vampire’s birth is heralded by a Shining-like cascade of blood, in which Arterton bathes, her cleavage overflowing with blood. Her cups literally runneth over with blood.

In spite of scene-stealing competition from her cleavage, Arterton holds much of the film together with an impressively committed performance. Ronan is ever reliable as a disenfranchised youth, and her sighs and longing glances carry her character’s tragedy. Sadly, she remains utterly unconvincing in romantic roles, and paired with the zombified Jones, sporting a Danish (?) accent that is baffling to the ears, makes for some very awkward drama. Johnny Lee Miller minces amusingly as the Victorian villain, while Control’s Sam Riley is horrendously underutilised in a supporting role.

One of Byzantium’s great saving graces is in its lightly sketched mythology, introducing its vampires as an underground cabal of male vampires who do not approve of females amongst their ranks, and forbid them to be makers. The idea of an ancient sect of fundamentalist chauvinists throws up cute allusions to the Catholic Church, although despite their intimidation it is hard to suppress a guffaw when they introduce themselves as ‘The Pointed Nails of Justice’.

Lovely to look at for the most part, adequately acted and with an impressive score by Javier Navarrete (Pan’s Labyrinth), Byzantium will not be one of Jordan’s best remembered films, but it is a welcome return to the gothic for the Irish filmmaker. While the ending feels rushed and features one excessively under-explained character reversal, there is enough in the film to keep the attention throughout.

A mobile phone vibrating in a puddle of blood, for example. There’s something we haven’t seen before.

David Neary

15A (see IFCO website for details)

118 mins
Byzantium is released on 31st May 2013

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