A review requested by James P, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

If there exists a more pleasant, humane story of the constant horror of life during the London Blitz than John Boorman's Hope and Glory, of 1987, I am thoroughly unfamiliar with it and frankly don't know that I could even imagine it. This is the source of the film's charm, which is considerable, and also its rather distinct limitations as a drama, which are only a bit less considerable. It belongs to the same genre that Terence Davies would later mine so effectively, the one where British filmmakers direct pseudo-autobiographical snapshots of childhood over a period of a few months, linking scenes and events more along a thematic and emotional spine than a particularly narrative one. Done at its best, this can result in piercing, frightfully intelligent depictions of domestic behavior. At its worst, it can result in formless blobs of ideas that get dumped on the screen without any rhyme or reason. Hope and Glory is at neither of those poles, though it tends towards the side of the best; its strongest moments land like small explosions of human insight filtered through an amount of nostalgia that's not enough to discolor the truthfulness inherent to the moment. Its weakest moments, meanwhile, are easy to dismiss as "cute", which is still better than one can say for plenty of superficially similar movies.

One thing it doesn't have, though, is much in the way of a sustained plot. It begins in late 1939, when the United Kingdom officially declared war on Germany, though it smooshes time together; the opening scene involves the characters watching an air raid preparedness newsreel, war is declared in the second scene, and the Blitz of September, 1940, feels like it starts at most just a week or so later. The film's focal point in all of this is the Rohan family, with father Clive (David Hayman) leaving to fight early on and dropping all the responsibility for keeping things safe and stable to his wife Grace (Sarah Miles). And this she does, though it's beyond one woman's emotional and physical resources to control every moment in the lives of her three children in the middle of a literal, actual war zone, which means that teenge daughter Dawn (Sammi Davis), little Sue (Geraldine Muir), and middle child, 10-year-old Bill (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) spent a lot of time fucking around the bombed-out corners of London with the other young folks they can find who didn't make the trip to safety in the country. Our main entry point to this world is Bill, a surrogate for the writer-director though he's a few years older than Boorman was at the same point in time; but we're not necessarily limited to his understanding of things. In fact, one of the film's greatest achievements is to play the goofy insouciance of a boy who has no real context whatsoever for all the grave developments happening around him against the audience's blunter awareness of the inherent tension of the Blitz.

Even in that case, though, the film's more nuanced than just "kids are innocent, adults are terrified"; one of those charms I mentioned up top is that Hope and Glory spends a fair amount of time watching Grace and the other grown-ups she interacts with on a regular basis, and those interactions are frequently of a light-hearted, pragmatic register, with people acknowledging the basic seriousness of their situation but not forgetting to go about the business of everyday life. In part, we can assume, because this is their way of clinging to a basic foundational reality that can be built upon assuming the godforsaken war ever ends; but it's the film's good sense to allow, equally, the impression that it's because life does go on, even in wartime, and stiff-upper-lip sloganeering and weepily earnest homefront melodramas notwithstanding (we see one such melodrama when the family goes to the movies; Bill pantomimes his disinterest as baldly as his mother has a whole-body reaction to the sad tales of brave men leaving their women for the greater good), the petty details of normal life can't entirely turn themselves off just because of a little bit of bombing is happening across the street.

The intersection of utterly uneventful daily life with the chaos of war is exactly the heart of Hope and Glory, which depicts basically two kinds of events: ones in which the war happens, but the characters respond with basically quotidian feelings (my favorite such moment: "Drop it on Mrs Evans, she's a cow!" prays Dawn, when the bombs come too close to the Rowan house), and ones in which life plays out almost completely without reference to the war at all. It exists as a literal backdrop, scene in the distance and notable only for forming a ready-made playground of crumbling bricks and timber for the local kids to play at the very important business of having nothing in particular to do and doing it with grand intent, with all the fixed lack of continuity of childhood. Thus can a sequence in which Bill and his gang bribe a neighborhood girl to let them all look down her panties immediately transition into them goofing around like it never happened, the instant that they get bored with the mysteries of sex.

It would be inaccurate to charge Hope and Glory with being shapeless, though it comes awfully close. It has internal chronology, and in Dawn's sexual run-in with a handsome Canadian airman, it has a distinctive plot that spits echoes forwards and backwards. What it does not have, and probably couldn't have, is a particularly strong, clear spine: it is after all tightly yoked to Bill, who perceives something of an eternal present, and who doesn't actually know a great deal more at the end of the movie than he does at the beginning of it. Though he does have a broader range of experiences. It would be unfair in the extreme to call this a "flaw" within the movie, since it's virtually a requirement of the scenario. Still, it leaves the film awfully shaggy; Hope and Glory runs a bit less than two hours, but there's no clear reason it could end at 80 minutes, or stretch on to two and a half hours. It's just an accumulation of scenes, and the particular scenes involved don't build to any sort crescendo in and of themselves. The ending, in particular, has no sense of summary; it just hits a point where the movie runs out of variations on a theme and so excuses itself.

The overall feeling is one of indulgence; Boorman adopts the position of a man eagerly reeling off story after story about his youth, and it's not very long before you realise that the joy he takes in telling stories overwhelms any particular reason to tell those stories. As far as Boorman's indulgences as a director, it's far better to have this than his extraordinarily batty Zardoz of 1974, or the petulant childishness of his point-missing Exorcist II: The Heretic. Still, his best movies, which I think to be unambiguously if not objectively Point Blank and Deliverance, are the ones where he has the strictest framework to operate in, with clear and relentless momentum connecting scenes. Compared to those, Hope and Glory is shambling compared to those, and the obvious personal love the director has for his material doesn't inject it with any deeper urgency of purpose.

Still, obvious love justifies itself, to a certain degree, and the precision of the characters and the performances that Boorman draws out of his actors (most impressively the allegedly uncooperative Rice-Edwards) make Hope and Glory a pleasure even when when it's a bit pokey and aimless. Miles, in particular, is absolutely terrific in a low-key role that requires all of her best work to be done in the margins and between the lines. Her terror at being alone, her regret for the life that she didn't live, her feeling of simultaneous protection towards and alienation from her children, all make hers easily the most interesting performance of the most complex character in the movie. The kids are all a bit more elemental than she is, and a bit more naturalistically "there" than visibly acted; taken all as a whole, it's a warm, generous, and palpably accurate portrayal of people being people in the absence of any real narrative pressure. That is not anywhere near my favorite register for a movie to inhabit, but even I have to admit that this is a strong example of the form.