I have a feeling that Glorious 39 is either a movie people like or they can't stand. It's not a film that delivers easy, clear answers and closure - and it's not without its flaws. But personally, I found it to be enormously thought-provoking, a gripping and thoroughly absorbing piece of cinema. I'm SO glad it finally released on DVD! I had completely forgotten about it - it's been about three years since I saw trailers break online, and I hoped (vainly, as it turns out) that the film would see a limited release in my area since it features a memorable performance by m'darling DAVID TENNANT. Alas, a theatrical viewing was not to be, and it was only by chance that I saw an advertisement announcing the movie's DVD release. On to the story...parts of this review will probably be very spoiler-y since I want to set my thoughts about the film "on paper" as the saying goes. So be warned. :)
The film opens in the present day, with young Michael (Toby Regbo) visiting some distant cousins, brothers Walter (Christopher Lee) and Oliver (Corin Redgrave). Walter and Oliver seem uneasy with Michael's visit, especially when he asks about what really happened to his mysterious great aunt Anne Keyes, who disappeared during the war. Bu any uneasiness Walter and Oliver may feel with their young cousin digging up the past is quickly overshadowed by Walter's desire for an audience and the chance to revisit that glorious summer of 1939, before the outbreak of World War II changed everything. The tagline of this film is "you can't always run from the past," and we see the older Walter discover this to be true as his complicity in the events surrounding Anne's fall from the family's grace is revealed.
I absolutely love the look of the film as it begins to take us into the flashback. The family estate, the setting for so much heartbreak, is gorgeously rendered on-screen. Everything appears sublimely idyllic in the lives of the Keyes family - yes, conflict is on the horizon with Hitler's aggression in Europe, but what could that possibly have to do with their lives so far away, so secluded and removed from the hustle and bustle of London and political drama. Oldest adopted daughter Anne (Romola Garai) and her brother Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) and sister Celia (Juno Temple) appear to be as close as one could wish, dashing among the ruins, privileged and without a care in the world - until they are brought short by the image of a burial. The stark contrast to their carefree play is only a hint of the shadows that will soon overcome this privileged family.
Anne has invited two friends to the family home to help celebrate her beloved father's birthday - Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), a World War I hero and a respected Member of Parliament. Hector Haldane (David Tennant), also an MP, is just a friend, while Lawrence (Charlie Cox) is a lover yet to be introduced to the family. Alexander brings an unexpected guest home with him, Balcombe (Jeremy Northam), an unsettlingly quiet and reserved government employee. Over the birthday dinner, Hector becomes quite outspoken about his fervent belief that Hitler must be stopped and that the current government's policy of appeasement is not only not working but dangerous, because "evil has to be stood up to." A bit of an aside - it's absolutely fantastic to see Tennant in his role with his Scottish accent. Excuse me while I swoon. And Tennant's scenes are even more swoon-worthy given his character's passionate stance against Hitler and the the threat of appeasement. Hector is a character who was determined to make a stand, and I loved that.
Shortly after the birthday dinner, Anne ventures into her father's previously forbidden outbuildings on the estate in search of a lost cat. There she discovers records, labeled as fox trots or popular songs, that don't contain music but instead are recordings of meetings - meetings she thinks little of until her friend Hector is found dead of an apparent suicide. Anne conjectures that the mysterious Balcombe could have something to do with Hector's death - she's wary of the recordings and everyone's reticence to explain the true nature of Balcombe's government work. As the stress of the mystery of the recordings and Hector's death mounts, Anne finds herself under fire as her own well-being and mental acuity are called into question.
I think I'll stop there, because this film is a journey worth experiencing yourself - if I've succeeded in hooking your interest. :) Let's talk about the construction of the film itself and some of the performances. Glorious 39 is written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff. I confess to being unfamiliar with his work save for the Masterpiece production The Lost Prince. Despite some hiccups in tone and editing, Glorious 39 is a carefully constructed film, each scene increasing the tension and suspense factor exponentially. In some respects it is reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock film (note I'm not saying it's on that level, just similar!) - for the most part, the suspense comes from really well layed-out and gradually increasing psychological tension, not gore or scenes that only have "shock" value (this holds true until the last fourth of the film anyway).
I'm a pretty big fan of Romola Garai's work - ever since her appearance in 2002's Daniel Deronda she's continued to grow and mature as an actress, and her latest Masterpiece appearance in Emma is one of my favorites. I happened upon this review of Glorious 39 which likens Garai's performance as Anne to Ingrid Bergman in a Hitchcock picture, and the more I mull over that comparison the more I find that I agree with it. Anne possesses the same balance of wide-eyed innocence and strength that Bergman projected in films like Spellbound or Notorious (especially the latter IMO). And though it's not a Hitchcock picture, the psychological terror brought to bear against Anne, and her reaction to it, reminds me of the terrorized wife Bergman plays in Gaslight. The final act of Glorious 39 takes a marked turn towards the melodramatic that I think will be off-putting to some viewers. It calls into question the veracity of some of the events we've seen play out to that point, but the tone and direction worked for me.
Glorious 39 skates a delicate balance between taut psychological thriller and melodrama, and while I wouldn't say it manages that balance perfectly the end product worked for me. It seems only natural to me that the continued strain placed upon Anne by the events of the film would bring her to the point of a psychological breakdown. I think that's why the last fourth of the film takes on an almost unreal aspect when Anne visits the country vet in order to put the family pets to sleep. My take on the scene where Anne enters the barn filled with animal corpses waiting to be burned is that its some sort of comment on how the coming war will consume even the most innocents wholly and completely. I don't think it's a comment on the Holocaust, as the emotional impact of the scene feels more generic and broadly directed to me.
Poliakoff has crafted a film that addresses reality vs. imagination, truth vs. fiction, and trust vs. lies. As privileged members of the British aristocracy in the 1930s, Anne's family was wholly invested in maintaining the status quo at all costs. The lengths they are willing to go to in order to accomplish their aims are positively chilling, and may leave you pondering - as it did me - just how you might have reacted were you unfortunate enough to find yourself in Anne's situation. I think if the film hadn't made quite so sharp a turn towards over-the-top melodrama in the final act that the resulting movie would have been tighter and more focused.
If you're interested in this film but concerned about the R rating, that is mainly for the way psychological tension builds throughout the movie. When the deaths are involved there is some blood but the scenes are not overly graphic. The one "almost" love scene where Charlie Cox's backside is revealed is completely unnecessary. Romola Garai drops several f-bombs toward the movie's finale, which are quite jarring given her almost genteel on-screen presence, but in the context of the story and what Anne has endured you may find it understandable.
A few quick additional acting shout-outs...I just love Bill Nighy and he was spectacular as Anne's father. His calm, solicitous demeanor throughout the film is positively chilling. You can totally understand how hard it would be for Anne to come to terms with this, for all appearances kind and loving man, being involved in an appeasement effort that advocates the violent intimidation and silencing of protesters. I also love Jeremy Northam, and have to give him kudos for playing against the more heroic, gentleman-like type of role I'm more accustomed to seeing him play in period films. It was a real treat to see Julie Christie as Anne's Aunt Elizabeth - Christie just oozes class, and though her complicity in the plot to "teach Anne a lesson" is never directly addressed, her laser like focus on frivolous matters stands in stark contrast to the dark events on the horizon with the advent of war. Hugh Bonneville gives a great turn as Anne's actor friend Gilbert, whose life is also sacrificed for discovering too much about the appeasors' activities.
Since I love film music, I have to mention composer Adrian Johnston provides the film's gorgeous score (he worked on Becoming Jane). And in addition to Poliakoff's work as writer and director, I have to give credit to the editors and cinematographers that worked on Glorious 39 - the editing in this film is, for the most part, so good at never letting up on the tension and suspense! And the look of the film, from the settings to the costumes is simply sumptuous. The stark dichotomy between the outward beauty of the Keyes family's lives and the inward corruption is really well played out. If you liked Atonement, I think you'd enjoy Glorious 39. Both films are similarly thought-provoking stories that address questions of truth and honor without providing pat or easy answers.
And finally, if you actually made it through this review, thanks. I know it's a long one. :) If you've seen Glorious 39 I'd love to discuss - it's been a couple of days since I watched it and I feel like I'm still processing it in many respects!