Saturday, 1 August 2015

For Queen & Country (1988)

A flop on its release in 1988, For Queen & Country deserves a re-evaluation now as a major critique on Thatcherism and life in 1980s Britain, a life we seem to be reliving again now.

There have been many movies made in the US about the hardships faced by soldiers returning to civilian life after tours of duty in Vietnam, but less so about the same experiences on this side of the Atlantic. Director Martin Stellman (previously responsible for the screenplays of Quadrophenia, Babylon and Defence of the Realm) teamed up with Trix Worrell (creator of popular 80s sitcom Desmond's) to redress this balance and right the wrongs he felt David Puttnam in particular made of his script for Defence of the Realm, which he viewed as too polite. For Queen & Country is a deliberately vitriolic, scathing attack on Thatcher's Britain; a country which is happy to abandon its young (especially those of ethnic minorities) and offer them no prospects of a future, even when they have risked their lives for that very same country.

The film's protagonist is St Lucian born, London raised former 2 Para soldier and veteran of Northern Ireland and The Falklands, Reuben James played - surprisingly - by Denzel Washington in an early star role. It's strange to see Washington on the rundown council estates of London speaking with a cockney accent and, whilst the accent isn't perfect, it isn't anywhere near as bad as his fellow Afro-American actor Forrest Whitaker's attempt in The Crying Game four years later. He doesn't stick out like a sore thumb either, like many parachuted in Hollywood performers are wont to do. In short he gives the kind of superb and efficient performance he has become known and loved for. 

Returning home he finds less than a hero's welcome. The estate is even more run down and crime ridden than it was before he left, with friends that he used to indulge in a spot of petty crime and football hooliganism with getting further into the violent, unlawful mire, whilst his invalided out squaddie mate (Dorian Healy) is unemployed and up to his neck in debt. There are no jobs on offer and racism is rife - from being subjected to stop and search by the suspicious, bigoted local police to being informed by the Home Office that he can no longer call himself a British citizen - despite having fought for the country - or have access to a British passport on account of St Lucia gaining independence in 1981.  Understandably, Reuben is left to wonder if his years in the army was really worth it, and when a war develops on his own doorstep, he quickly finds himself caught in the crossfire.

It's in this story of rioting as a result of a policeman's death that For Queen & Country ultimately starts to flag. From there, the film stops being an absorbing and compelling, authentic depiction of the hardships of civvy street and the cruel irony of Falklands vet Reuben having ostensibly kept in power the very government who are now the root of all his problems, and instead starts to deliver elements of a bog-standard thriller. In Stellman and Worrell's defence, it's clear this storyline is a reflection of the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985 which saw the murder of PC Keith Blakelock and I respect and applaud them for tackling such an important powder keg moment of 80s Britain, but I do wish they could have done so with the same thought provoking and intelligent sociopolitical approach they took with the rest of the film. It's a real shame because I feel the film could have managed perfectly well as a less plot driven vehicle than it ultimately becomes, with Washington's character resorting to the easier and lucrative life of crime on offer by old friend Bruce Payne which sees him become a pawn in the game of vengeful police detective George Baker and his trigger happy junior played by Craig Fairbrass. Overall I'd have preferred perhaps more time spent on the other subplot, which sees Reuben become romantically involved with his neighbour, played by Amanda Redman.

Obvious flaws aside, For Queen & Country remains a compelling study of a man adrift in what he once considered his home and, when the film plays on the loyalties and allegiances he desperately clings onto (such as to his amputee friend played by Healy) because that's all he's got left in the face of such unfairness and austerity, it is firing on all cylinders.

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