Glorious 39

Written and Directed by Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff has always been fascinated with the past, evident in dramas such as Shooting the Past (1999) and Perfect Strangers (2001). Here, in Glorious 39, he exposes the aristocratic and establishment pacifiers of the late 1930s who, in the run-up to the Second World War, staged a desperate last effort to do a deal with Hitler in the hope of retaining their power and privilege.  

In merry old England, in the idyllic rural countryside, young actress Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) lives happily with her adopted aristocratic family. She is blissfully close to her brother Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) and sister Celia (Juno Temple) and adores her Parliamentary father, played with cool charm by Bill Nighy. Siblings take jovial walks together. Anne reads Keats poetry to them as they snuggle together in the lounge. All is perfect and loving. Or so it seems.

Gradually mysterious events occur. A young MP friend (David Tennant) dies after a dinner party rant vehemently criticising Prime Minister Chamberlain and his government appeasers. Recordings of secret meetings are found archived at home. Anne’s actor co-star seemingly commits suicide after listening to one such recording. Gradually Anne’s familial world becomes unhinged.

These gradual revelations in Anne’s life are beautifully played by Romola Garai. At times stunning, at times vulnerable, she covers the full emotional spectrum; skilfully evoking the joy of life and love and then the confusions and desperation as the ruthlessness of her family are realised.

Poliakoff presents a sinister and haunting environment.  A family arena in which wider events resonate is a theme in much of Poliakoff’s work and in Glorious 39 political conspiracy is lived out in the confined inhabitance of one family. No wider outside influence is evident, as though this family are members of an oligarchic elite controlling the Nation’s political dealings themselves.

This remoteness and tangibly claustrophobic insular setting is redolent of British movies like The Wicker Man (coincidence that Christopher Lee is in the both) where a close-knit community, in this case a family, conspire against the central character. Nobody is to be trusted; from the Vet to a young girl with whom Anne entrusts vital evidence.

At times Poliakoff’s direction steers into horror genre clichés reminiscent of the Hammer Horrors (coincidence that Christopher Lee is in the both): half-seen figures disappearing through woodland, Anne fleeing through narrow passages, and sudden interrupting entrances. However, there is predominantly an atmosphere of haunting tension as Anne becomes increasingly isolated. As family secrets are revealed her life becomes more threatened.

Any pacifists would be forgiven for thinking this is a pro-war film. After all, the ‘goodies’ are for outright war whereas the ‘baddie’ conspirators are trying to avoid it. Nighy’s stoic Lord Alexander speaks of the atrocities of the First World War and his fear of losing the next. He fears defeat would destroy democracy and culture. It seems as though his motives are genuine.

However, when you realise this means a Vichy-like deal with Hitler and horrific consequences for the Jewish population of Britain the emphasis changes. The good-willed pacifiers become pro-fascists. And inevitably the family’s own methods of maintaining their democracy and political advantage lead to Big Brother wire-tapping and dictatorial murder.

The horrible truth of what could happen at home is evoked by the images of so-called burdensome cats and dogs systematically being put down; emblematic of the extermination of Jews that was going on in Nazi-Germany at the same time.

We all know the outcome of 1939 and whether the aristocracy came close to manipulating a deal with Hitler is uncertain, but Poliakoff proposes an eerie scenario should the powerful elite become so influential.


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