One more look back to the past for director John Boorman

He’s loath to admit it, but John Boorman’s new film may be his last, writes Don O’Mahony.

YOU could blame it on Ken Loach. His pre Cannes announcement that Jimmy’s Hall would be his last, set the tone, so that when the 81-year-old John Boorman came to take his turn on the Croisette as part of the Director’s Fortnight strand, the valedictory mood had been established.

Boorman is a two-time best director award winner at the festival, first in 1970 with Leo The Last and again in 1998 with The General. And the wistful nature of his latest film Queen and Country, set nine years on from his World War II childhood memoir Hope and Glory, allied to his declaration that this may be his very last film, added to the feeling of nostalgia.

A day after premiering his film Boorman sat down with a knot of young journalists, looking elegant in an off-cream suit. Like a much beloved inspirational former teacher he was received with a mixture of affection and respect.

The question is broached immediately. Veterans such as Alain Resnais and the indefatigable Portuguese centenarian Manoel de Oliveira are cited as examples of directors who refuse to call time on their craft.

“Aren’t you inspired by them to keep on going?” is one earnest entreaty.

Boorman offers an amused chuckle before cutting to the heart of the issue. “They’re still making films,” he says, “are they any good?”

If Queen and Country is to be his last it is a worthy curtain call to his career.

Touching on themes of unrequited love it also manages within its mostly buoyant mood to make serious points about the absurdity of war.

As befitting the man behind the film writing series ‘Projections’, Boorman inserts a piercing observation on Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Leaving a screening of the film, the director’s on-screen alter ego Bill Rohan rhapsodises about its multi-faceted storytelling innovations, but his date, the well-heeled Ophelia, cuts him down with the remark that whatever way the story gets told the woman still gets raped.

To the assembled journalists, Boorman paints a picture of John Huston — wheelchair bound and hooked up to an oxygen tank, making his final and what the director considers one of his best films, The Dead. Like Joyce and Huston, Boorman also seems concerned with memory and uncertain romance.

“I’m very interested in the relationship between memory and imagination,” he considers, “because it’s quite mysterious. When I was writing Hope and Glory, which is based on my memories as a child, and I wrote the script and I showed it to my mother and my older sister and I said, ‘Well if there’s anything there you don’t like or offends you I’ll take it out.’

“And they were astonished when they read it because things that I thought I’d invented turned out to be the truth and they were astonished. How could I possibly have known that these events occurred, mostly to do with their sex lives? How could I have known? So perhaps invention is more reliable than memory maybe. There’s more truth in it.”

He adds: “It’s very interesting when you’re making autobiography, which is that it’s a kind of dance between memory and imagination. And what that dance produces, one hopes, is truth. You know emotional or psychological truth.

“When I was making Hope and Glory, when I wrote the script, the act of writing released a lot of memories. A lot of stuff came back that had been lurking in the memory and surfaced in the process of writing.”

And like Kurosawa, Boorman could have offered a different version of events.

“If I made Queen and Country much closer to the experience it probably would have been an angrier film. And it was only just in the last three or four years I started thinking about that time and at the time the ’50s seemed rather dreary and I was glad to be rid if them but looking back at it now it seems a very important time.

“Because it was after the Second World War and it was a time of really incredible change in Britain because the British Empire just collapsed within those few years. So, as you see in the film, the older characters were still hanging on to these idylls, imperial ideas, and the younger ones, we all could see that England was gong to be a different place, a more smaller modest place and we all hoped that this class system, which comes down from the aristocracy and the monarchy and the public schools, would be swept away.”

Boorman feels British society did improve, even if the monarchy is still going strong.

“It really is extraordinary that that film took place in 1952, the coronation of the Queen, and she’s still on the throne.”

“It’s ludicrous that that could have survived. In the scene when they’re watching the coronation in the film I tried to express the different views that people had towards it. Like the father is very patriotic and very respectful of the Queen and the son thinks it’s ridiculous. It is absurd though, isn’t it, that in this day and age there’s still this kind of medieval nonsense,” he says.

One character who cocks a snook at the rigors of military life in which Rohan becomes immersed is Private Redmond, who is beautifully played by Pat Shortt. A self-declared skiver, Redmond proves something of a fly in the ointment of David Thewlis’s martinet Sergeant Major.

“He was exactly like that,” Boorman recalls fondly, “and his great triumph was being excused saluting, which was of course an act of disdain to the officers. He could walk around with his hands in his pocket and not salute them, which enraged everybody but he got away with it. He was a remarkable character.

“That remark when he was asked by the boys to define a skiver and he said, well the army brainwashes you so that when they tell you to get up out of the trench and walk towards a machine gun that’s shooting at you you do it.

“He said a skiver will find a reason to stay in the trench. He said you have to be brave to be that cowardly.”

It may appear that Boorman will not go once more into the breach but like old soldiers old directors never die.“My powers are fading so I don’t know whether I can do another one,” he concedes. “But I certainly will continue to write.”

  • Queen and Country screens at the Gate on Sunday as part of the Cork Film Festival.


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