Glorious 39 Review

During the past thirty years or so, Stephen Poliakoff has become one of our greatest television dramatists. Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers and The Lost Prince are among the most probing, intelligent and compelling serials to have emerged from the BBC since the corporation’s glory days and individual plays such as Caught on a Train and Gideon’s Daughter demonstrate unusual perception and empathy for characters who are not immediately sympathetic. His work for the cinema is rather more patchy and Century and Food Of Love are very inconsistent. But there are wonderful things in Hidden City and Close My Eyes, two films which have an extraordinary grasp of various aspects of the English landscape. Twelve years after his last movie Poliakoff has returned with Glorious 39, a work which combines many aspects of his earlier writing and demonstrates his skill with actors while unfortunately highlighting some of his failures as a dramatist.

Glorious 39 is set during the year that Britain declared war on Germany and deals particularly with the period of the Phoney War, the months between September 1939 and April 1940 when there was no bombing and virtually no fighting. It was a period when the government, led by Neville Chamberlain, was still largely committed to the principles of appeasement and were looking for any possible way to avert a war which many ‘top people’ felt was impossible for Britain to win. The exact nature of these efforts to negotiate peace remain somewhat hazy but it is known that the British aristocracy were highly in favour of it, including the Royal Family, and that the secret service made concerted efforts to suppress opponents of peace in the hope that a treaty with Germany could be secured. Poliakoff reflects this period through the story of a family led by Sir Alexander Keyes (Nighy), a successful MP who has two natural children, Ralph (Redmayne) and Celia (Temple), and an adopted daughter, Anne (Garai), an actress. At the family’s large country house, Anne meets Lawrence (Cox), a Foreign office official who becomes her lover, and Balcombe (Northam), a mysterious government agent who stores a large Foreign Office archive in one of the outhouses. Also present at the house is Hector Haldane (Tennant), an MP who is voluble in his criticism of Chamberlain’s attempts to avoid a world war by making peace with Hitler. When Hector is found dead in an apparent suicide, Anne becomes suspicious and begins to question the role of Balcombe in the affair. She explores the archive and discovers a recording of a meeting in which special measures against enemies of the state are discussed. Her investigations reveal the extent to which those closest to her are implicated in government secrets and soon her own sanity comes under question when the forces of darkness are unleashed.

This is wonderful material for a film. It’s a period which hasn’t been explored very often in films and Poliakoff seems the ideal person to mine it for significance. The story features many of his familiar themes – government conspiracy (Staring at the Sun); secret archives (Hidden City); family secrets (Perfect Strangers); fathers and daughters (Gideon’s Daughter); and the ways in which the past impacts on the present (Shooting the Past). It’s also a thriller in the Hitchcockian mode with mysterious deaths, minor comic characters in the firing line and a fragile heroine being slowly driven insane – Anne Keyes is slightly reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. For much of the time, the mixture works very well. Poliakoff is very good at evoking aching nostalgia for a past time and then pulling the carpet of easy sentimentality from under you and along with DP Danny Cohen makes the most of the gorgeous locations. He also creates some fantastic scenes of suspense, particularly a scene in which Anne wakes up during a family picnic to find that the baby in her charge has gone missing. The growing oppressive atmosphere of entirely justified paranoia is clearly meant to evoke Rosemary’s Baby - one of Poliakoff’s favourite films – and it works very well up to a point. The problem is that the final half hour is somehow unsatisfying with Nighy’s character in particular undergoing a character change which is not entirely credible. Eddie Redmayne, good actor that he is, can’t quite convince us that Ralph Keyes is quite capable of doing what that the plot requires of him when for much of the first half he’s just a bit of a silly arse. Equally, the ending is problematic because Poliakoff lacks the killer instinct to finish the film at the point where it should do and lets us off the hook with an audience-pleasing twist.

There’s another problem with the structure of the film. It’s narrated in flashback by the grown up Walter, a cousin of the family played by Christopher Lee. Now, Chris Lee is magnificent and it’s great to see him but his role in the film is completely unnecessary and suggests that Poliakoff can’t quite trust his audience to engage with the period setting without a modern context to steady them. This framing device allows for an ending which doesn’t make a great deal of sense, although it’s lovely to see Muriel Pavlow looking so good.

However, it’s unfair to carp too much about a film which is so gripping, especially when it’s that rare beast; a thriller based on good talk rather than violent action. I found it deliriously evocative in its best moments, especially since it is so beautifully designed and costumed. It’s also a fine showcase for Poliakoff’s masterly direction of a huge cast. The younger actors are all perfectly cast, with Juno Temple standing out, and Bill Nighy and David Tennant are their usual reliable selves. There are equally strong opportunities for Julie Christie and Jenny Agutter, whose presences are evocative in themselves. Hugh Bonneville is delightfully funny and sad in a pivotal supporting role and Jeremy Northam creates another memorably sinister villain. But the film rightfully belongs to Romola Garai who confirms the promise she has shown in numerous films by taking a big part by the scruff of the neck and making it her own. She is totally convincing in her move from complete, sensible sanity to paranoid terror and it says everything that the aforementioned comparison with Ingrid Bergman does nothing to shame her.

Stephen Poliakoff thinks big and his work has an operatic quality which always edges into melodrama. But his keen intelligence and diligent research keep it from sliding into soap opera and it’s this controlling sensibility which makes Glorious 39 so enjoyable and stimulating to watch, even when you’re grumbling about the things in it which don’t quite come off. At the end, I was annoyed and a bit impatient with the plot contrivances but I also felt alert, excited and keen to find out more about the period. That’s a refreshing change when most recent movies have just left me yawning.

The Disc

Momentum’s disc of Glorious 39 is a nice enough package with a fine transfer and some adequate extras.

The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The image is generally lovely with exceptionally strong colours and generally plenty of detail although some of the darker scenes are a bit murky and show more grain than elsewhere. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is more than acceptable, rendering the dialogue crisp and clear. The nature of the material doesn’t allow for a spectacular sound experience but Adrian Johnson’s score fills out the surrounds to good effect.

The extra features are headed by an audio commentary from Stephen Poliakoff and Romola Garai. It’s a bit of a love-in with everyone concerned being praised in no uncertain terms. But Poliakoff explains the roots of the project and is certainly enthusiastic, as is his star. The rest of the bonus materials are a bit sketchy apart from a good 25 minute featurette with Poliakoff who is eloquent and interesting. There are also briefer pieces on the film as a whole and on the London premiere, both of which come straight from EPK land. The trailer is present as are costume sketches and a photo gallery.

Glorious 39 is a slow, carefully paced drama which may strike some people as a bit too stately to convince as a thriller. But as a film of ideas and characters it is compelling and involving, dealing with a less familiar period of history, and it certainly deserves a larger audience than it got at the cinema.

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