Based on the childhood of director John Boorman, Hope and Glory is a look at the British Home Front during the Blitz. The first half of the film follows the family of ten-year-old Billy (Sebastian Rice-Edwards), and the residents of London’s Rosehill Avenue as the war starts and the men are sent away. Then later Billy’s family go to live with their grumpy grandad in the countryside.
The film is a decidedly unromantic look at the era. The classic image of Britain selflessly pulling together to fight the Nazis is replaced by the presumably far more true-to-life emotions of people who are often concerned primarily with how it will affect them.
The neighbourhood’s boys are positively excited at the prospect of war, and disappointed when it doesn’t match up to the movies. Billy’s older sister relishes in her romance with a Canadian soldier, and his mother is pleased that the new virtue placed on thrift means she no longer has to keep up appearances. For Billy the upending of the social order brings newfound freedom, even if it is of the Lord of the Flies kind.
Based on Boorman’s real-life experiences, the peculiar structure takes us from bombing and blitzkrieg to cricket by the Thames, including several surprising plot points along the way. The father who is sent away becomes a typist rather than a war hero, while the family home is destroyed not by German bombs but by a conventional house fire.
It’s superbly directed, with Boorman constructing and destroying a full-sized street to show the effects of the bombs. Rather than a grand narrative it’s more a series of intriguing moments, such as when a German fighter pilot parachutes onto a local allotment to be led away through a sprout patch; one of the giant anti-aircraft blimps goes astray like a mini-Hindenburg; and naive children insensitively quiz a girl whose mum has just been killed.
It benefits from excellent performances, in particular young Rice-Edwards as Billy. He’s required to fight, punt, swear and play cricket, and scenes of him with a local gang are among the best in the film. It’s a coming-of-age story for both him and older sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) and the child’s eye view invites a new perspective, allowing us to see Billy’s confused reactions to the events around him.
The screenplay finds the humour even in the film’s darker moments and in spite of its subject matter is surprisingly not as bleak as Boorman’s films about canoeing (Deliverance) and giant floating heads (Zardoz).
The film is as thoroughly British as its name suggests, showing both sides of traditional England, working class suburbs and idyllic country life. By rejecting clichés of wartime spirit and patriotism it manages to be unpredictable and funny, without losing its authenticity.