If you're going to be disillusioned vet with a score to settle, Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees says it helps to have a cute working-class English accent. Oh, and it helps even more if you're Denzel Washington.
"I've hung up my guns. For good."
Dating from before his first Oscar win (for Glory), For Queen and Country shows us a young Denzel Washington already in full command of his powers as dramatic actor—including that characteristic Long Intense Stare. He even puts on a totally convincing English working-class accent. Is there anything this man can't do?
Well, he can't beat the system, and that's the message of this unrelentingly grim film.
Facts of the Case
Reuben James (Denzel Washington, Philadelphia, Training Day) is a young British paratrooper just returned home from fighting for his country in the Falklands. The friends he left behind, including Lynford (Geff Francis, Jack and Sarah), are still resentful of his joining up, and they try to draw him back into the lifestyle of petty thievery that sustains them. Another old acquaintance, Colin (Bruce Payne, Oxford Blues), has moved on to the more lucrative field of drug dealing, and he too would welcome Reuben as a cohort. Although the military has held out promises of job connections, these don't pan out, and he ends up spending most of his time drinking with his best buddy Fish, a fellow paratrooper who once saved Reuben's life but has lost his leg and barely scrapes by on his military pension. Reuben also comes under the watchful eye of cop Kilcoyne (George Baker of the Inspector Wexford TV mysteries) and his trigger-happy underling, Challoner (Craig Fairbrass), who are a bit too quick to look for trouble when they see a man of color.
There is a glimmer of promise in Reuben's life, in the form of feisty single mother Stacey (Amanda Redman, Sexy Beast), whom he meets when her daughter burgles his apartment. She even finds a job for him driving a cab. Despite Stacey's fears that his past as a soldier makes him a dangerous boyfriend, they are even considering going away to France for a weekend together, when a bureaucratic hitch reveals a startling fact: England no longer considers Reuben a citizen.
Embittered at the revelation that the country he risked his life for denies him, he makes an uncharacteristic venture into criminal activity to help out Fish. It's supposed to be a one-time thing. But the consequences run deeper than he had foreseen, and they lead to a terrible conflict of loyalties—and tragedy.
The text on the DVD case insert suggests that For Queen and Country will be a cathartic ass-whupping kind of film, an explosive example of the "he's back—and this time it's personal!" school. Don't believe it. This is a film in which the slow, gradual grinding down of our protagonist does ultimately result in an outbreak of violence, but there's no release or relief in that violence: rather, it's the tragic outcome of a series of defeats, and it cements our sense of the film's world as a grim, unjust place. It will leave you shaken or numb, but not invigorated. The case insert summary leads us to expect that Reuben is shocked by the changes in his (unidentified) home town and will take it upon himself to clean it up, but what we actually see is the way nothing seems to have changed during his time away. He comes back to the same shabby apartment building, the same group of friends still pulling the same low-level scams, the same racial prejudice. Far from finding that you can't go home again, Reuben finds that you can never really get away from the place you started out, despite all your efforts. His military service and his sterling record as a paratrooper ultimately mean nothing; his poverty, his race, and his background all seem to conspire to keep him locked into a go-nowhere existence. The film makes the most of the fierce irony by which Reuben, whose loyalties are so strong they make it difficult for him to act according to his principles, is denied by the very country that should show loyalty to him.
The film's epigraph prepares us for Reuben's disillusionment: a quotation from a soldier in Oliver Cromwell's (1599-1658) army, lamenting the injustice of serving one's country without receiving recognition as a citizen of that country. A brief sequence of flashbacks give us a glimpse of what Reuben undergoes as a soldier, taking a bullet for England and living on to fight another day. When he finally returns to the quiet city streets of England, the tone of the film becomes deceptively low-key: Maybe this man of war will find the peace he's earned. Instead, with quiet deliberation, his homecoming unfolds in a series of bleak, grimy cityscapes, as he arrives at surely the most soulless, ugly, and hopeless of apartment complexes ever to exist. Its concrete walls and puddled walkways house drug dealers and corrupt cops. Far from receiving a hero's welcome, Reuben is shoved up against a wall and taunted by a supercilious white policeman looking for a fight. Although there are outbreaks of violence, the tenor of this bedraggled society is one of looking the other way, and Reuben, far from picking up his guns and vowing to teach the place a Van Damme-style lesson, seems to know all too well that the power structure in place is one that won't be uprooted easily—and not without exacting a terrible cost on the very people who need its protection.
The film is so bleak and depressing that I find it a bit difficult to assess its quality. If I apply the Ebert litmus test and ask how well it accomplishes what it sets out to do, the answer, I think, is "quite well": The film convinces us that Reuben and Fish are treated unjustly by the country they served with their lives, although Fish makes his own situation worse by gambling with his pension money and cheating on his loyal Irish wife. We're also convinced that poor urban areas like the one in the film are essentially death traps for even the most ambitious, well-meaning, and intelligent of citizens, and we start to understand the allure of relatively glamorous, if more dangerous, activities like heroin dealing. The production design alone creates such a sense of bleak hopelessness that its cumulative impact over the course of the film is more powerful than any dialogue about poverty could be. The performances of this mostly British cast are uniformly strong, and Denzel proves once again that he is one of the most talented actors of his generation. Reuben is a quiet, internal character, and yet without a lot of dialogue Denzel makes his conflicts and tensions entirely transparent to us. The subtlety of the performance is superb, and Denzel creates a fully believable, complex man we like and understand. Wisely, he doesn't make Reuben especially noble; he's more of an everyman, which makes him someone we can relate to, and his dilemmas become our own dilemmas: there are no easy decisions for Reuben, and we can't watch over his shoulder with the feeling that we would know what to do in his situation. Consequently, we can't remove ourselves from his situation; we're in step with Reuben right up to the bitter end.
Of course, a great performance starts with the writing, and the screenplay is honest and believable. Notice, for example, the scene in which Stacey asks Reuben if he's ever killed anyone. Instead of lying to her or scaring her off with a blunt answer, Reuben describes the formation in which paratroopers attack, explaining how it functions, and pointing out how Fish's position in that formation made him vulnerable in the encounter in which he lost his leg. We can see understanding dawning on Stacey as she listens. The short answer would have been "of course I've killed people." But both the film and Reuben know that there's more to the answer than that. Likewise, for the most part the screenplay grants complexity even to characters that represent familiar types. The police detective Kilcoyne, for example, isn't the racist, power-mongering bully that he so easily could have been (that role is saved for his underling Challoner). He understands the loyalties that complicate Reuben's principles. Indeed, it would have been nice to see the film delve a bit more into Kilcoyne's character, to explore the balance he has found between resignation and principle.
Just as the quality of the production is a bit difficult to separate from its grimness, so too is the merit of the visual transfer tricky to assess since the film deliberately creates such a grimy, dun-colored world. The print here, in an unusual aspect ratio of 1.66:1, seems to be clear from most defects and wear, and although the color palette seems faded and dingy, I think this is a deliberate choice, not a symptom of age; the few times when we do see bright colors on screen (in Stacey's clothing, and in a scene at an amusement park) they are rich and true. The audio mix is fairly flat, and the '80s synthesizer-heavy score by Michael Kamen doesn't employ a lot of separation, but again, any glamour or showiness would certainly work against the film's intention. The sole extra is the film's original trailer, which is much more accurate to the film's purpose than the DVD packaging.
Fans of Denzel Washington—and every movie lover should be one—will find much to admire in this masterful performance. It's an unlikely star vehicle, but For Queen and Country provides still more proof of Washington's subtlety and power as an actor. It's also intriguing and eye-opening to find a story like this set in England, where we Americans may naïvely expect more civilized forces to reign. Overall, this is a powerful movie, but far from a cheering one; it's difficult even to consider it entertainment. I'd recommend making it half of a Denzel double feature and following it up with Much Ado About Nothing so that you aren't left with a feeling of utter despair.
Reuben James has suffered enough. He is free to go. Remaining parties shall be detained by the court to undergo a mandatory psychological screening in the expectation that they will qualify for prescriptions for Zoloft.
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