Having admired the work of Stephen Poliakoff for some years, Glorious 39 was something I looked forward to ‘when in the right mood’. Luckily, that opportunity recently arrived.
Released in 2009, Glorious 39 offered a wonderful cast and interesting story but did not meet with wonderful reviews across the board. I suspected that coming in at 2 hours in duration I may have found it rather overlong but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a very gripping film.
In the summer of 1939, Britain is on the brink of war but some seek appeasement. Even after war has been declared this faction seeks peace at all costs. Here, Poliakoff takes us to the heart of the establishment’s upper classes and the need to maintain the status quo.
The eldest and adopted daughter of politician Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) feels she has come across a high level and sinister plot when she makes a surprising discovery and others around her start to die in suspicious circumstances. Soon, too, we start to see Anne doubting herself due to actions around her and Glorious 39 creates remarkable tension as, with Anne in almost every scene, we see all that happens through her eyes. We feel both her doubts and her certainties, but we also have our own questions in our position as observers to Anne’s account. With shades of 1944’s Gaslight hovering over proceedings, Anne’s sanity becomes the focus of questions even with the ever present doting reassurances from her father.
At the start, we know only of Anne’s idyllic post-adoption life in the Keyes family with younger and biological siblings Ralph and Celia (Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple). She has grown up to be the sensible one, the leader, and she has embarked on a career in the acting profession. Anne is no raging Miss Marple however, as she is not too quick to realise the potential dangers and calls on fellow and older actor Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville) for advice.
The dialogue is on times over-stylised flowing into the clunky with heavy exposition. Much as I enjoy Bill Nighy’s performances, this is particularly evident in his case and his Alexander Keyes proves a little too reasonably contained and repetitive to stomach. With Poliakoff’s upper classes not so much ennobled as depicted to destruction here, Julie Christie’s Aunt Elizabeth and Juno Temple’s Celia provide the best horrors. Elizabeth is rooted in tradition but little in way of the true substance of life and Celia is both vacuous and apparently incapable of meeting reality.
Jeremy Northam’s Secret Service Balcombe is little more than a cypher-with-plot-purpose, truth be told, and David Tennant’s MP Hector Haldane is short-lived. (But in the case of the latter that might be a blessing in disguise due to the hyperactivity of expression.)
In framing with the modern day for the setting and denouement of the story, we are treated to Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave in well-portrayed roles, bringing the past’s legacy into the present.
In an ever-increasingly tense story, Poliakoff perhaps achieves what he set out to achieve with us hating the Nazi-appeasing upper classes of the times. But above all, we have a beautifully produced film with one outstanding performance here in Romola Garai’s Anne. Those two hours fly by being in Anne’s shoes. And Garai pulls on every heartstring without making it obvious. Romola Garai is simply superb.
When the final credits roll will you too be asking yourself about the nature of justice and humanity?
You can catch this on DVD via Amazon or click on BBC iplayer right now until Sunday 19 August.