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Myth. How does a director get it on screen? Does he find myth or make it? Does he stalk it like a shy animal, mug it like a burglar invading his home — or manufacture it from scratch?
Britain’s John Boorman became a major director by making popular cinema — genre cinema — yield up its mythic DNA. His best two early films, Point Blank and Deliverance, a crime drama and a wilderness thriller, rejoiced in the mythic richness of quest, ordeal, mystery, redemption, enlightenment. His career faltered when he tried manufacturing his own myth-world, in the lunatic Zardoz, then flatlined with two honourably aimed movies grounded in universal legend and folklore: Excalibur (King Arthur) and The Emerald Forest (noble savagery and the sanctity of the jungle). Something had gone missing. These films were beautiful but obvious: open-cast myth mining. Where were the earlier films’ teasing tunnels, deceptive shafts and hocus-pocus tricks with art-versus-populism?
Then Boorman made his best film since Deliverance. Hope and Glory was a childhood memoir and much, much more. Narrating a boy’s growing up during the second world war, based on his own boyhood, the film sent search-party themes down every vein of its story. Into Englishness, war, city-versus-country; into family and growing up; into “hope” and “glory”. Now Boorman has made Queen and Country, the promised second part of his life story.
Sometimes it’s less than Hope and Glory: a little tamer. But at best it has the multi-layered mythic richness of good Boorman. His teenage alter ego Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) leaves home, serves in army boot camp, romances a girl (Tamsin Egerton), gets up to tricks with fellow squaddies, goes home on breaks and finally — without serving in Korea — for good.
It’s a string of little jewels masquerading as a story. The army-life japes and escapades, climaxing in the stealing of an officers’ mess clock, might seem picayune. But they form a cumulative glitter. This is the Arthurian story with a wink and a nod: the sword of a boy’s self-determination pulled from the stone of precedent and authoritarian protocol. Acts of prankishness become mini-heroic as “time” is literally stolen: the time it takes, thieved from hours of institutional regimentation, to become oneself.
For his play-the-devil companion, Turner’s protagonist has the hilarious, volatile Caleb Landry Jones — a Texan actor gorblimeying a kind of English accent — and for goofy-magisterial authority figures David Thewlis and Richard E. Grant. “Silliness” throughout disguises a sly but strong seriousness. This is how myths are born from day to day and year to year: sideways, a little skewily; especially those individual myths, the me-myths, that each of us aspires to create, if only for ourselves, in our lifetime.