Director: John Boorman (2015)
A young conscript fights emotional battles on the home front in this stately coming-of-age post-war drama.
Based on the experiences of writer/director John Boorman, it’s a sequel to his well-received Hope and Glory (1987).
It’s handsome but unsteady in tone, lurching between army larks, misfiring satire, languid romance and dull family drama.
In 1952 the idyllic life of Boorman’s daydreaming alter ego Bill (Callum Turner) is interrupted by his conscription into the British army.
The script is keen to highlight the absurd rigours and regulations of army life, a closeted world of petty point-scoring, arbitrary discipline, paranoia and stupidity.
There’s a healthy contempt for superior officers, embodied by the brandy drinking and desk bound Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).
They are far more concerned with a missing clock from the mess than adequately preparing the troops to fight in Korea. A campaign of which the film is deeply cynical.
Alongside fellow conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) Bill is quickly promoted to sergeant. Percy clearly has issues and veers alarmingly from charming lad about town to angry, officer-baiting seditionary.
They fall in with Irish skivver Redmond (Pat Shortt) and fall foul of Regimental Sergeant Major Digby (Brían F. O’Byrne) and stiff-backed stickler Bradley (David Thewlis).
We’re told Digby is an horrific bully but apart from one brief wrestling exercise and a lot of bigoted shouting, we’re forced to take the boys’ word for it.
Telling not showing is a mistake in any film and not one we’d expect from as experienced a director as Boorman.
An odour of locker-room homo-eroticism drifts through the barracks in several semi-clad fights and there is frequent questioning of heterosexuality.
It becomes more prevalent when a trooper is charged with ‘seduction of a soldier from the course of his duty’.
However once outside the barracks Percy is chasing a pretty nurse called Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards).
Meanwhile Bill is entranced by an elegant, unobtainable blonde. Without embarrassment he nicknames her Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) after the tragic figure in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The return from Canada of Bill’s sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) complicates his life, not least due to her racy personal history and seemingly incestuous leanings.
Despite the female performers gamely following the director’s lead, none of their characters convince as people. Each is more of a projection of a teenage boy’s idea of womanhood.
Maybe that’s the point but it’s far from clear. Maybe Boorman finds it difficult to write female characters.
The script is sympathetic to those suffering the effects of war but the issue of post-traumatic stress – which is taken very seriously – sits uneasily with the humorous elements such as the choreography of a typing room.
Bill is not a particularly engaging chap and the exception of Ophelia aside, not much of a participant in his own life. Though events happen to him, he isn’t much affected.
With no-where else to fall, our sympathies land upon Bradley. Thewlis chalks up another excellent performance and not for the first time he’s the best thing in somebody else’s movie.
Sets and wardrobe perform a first rate job of convincing us of the era. Seamus Deasy’s graceful and seductive cinematography captures the period with a palette of greens and browns with a tender regard.
The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is watched on a new-fangled TV set. It signals a changing of the generational guard and the ushering in a less deferential, media-led age.
But the friction of small class distinctions generates little dramatic heat while the inter-generational conflict passes with barely a ripple of interest.