Stephen Poliakoff’s dark, labyrinthine account of England’s tumble into the Second World War was premiered at the London Film Festival this year and we were impressed by it.
As today sees the film’s release I wanted to take another look at this drama, to see if it lives up to its name.
Glorious 39 is not as glamorous as the marketing would have us believe. The posters suggest a costume drama about the brilliant and carefree life of British Aristocracy in the world of “Jeeves and Wooster”, with the faint whiff of a world war in the air. Instead, the new film by Stephen Poliakoff turns into an interesting and almost Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller.
“Almost” ““ because it seems that the director can not decide what type of film he is directing and keeps swinging between historic political drama and conspiracy thriller. As a result the film’s pace is very slow and does not deliver the crucial emotional epiphany to the audience when it is most desired.
As the name of the film suggests the story is set in the summer of 1939, in London and the peaceful countryside. The film is centered around the aristocratic Keyes family, who continue their luxurious lifestyle or parties and parliament despite Europe being at the edge of war with Hitler. The head of the family, Alexander (brilliantly played by Bill Nighy) is an influential MP and a great father to his three children: Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) who works at the Foreign Office and Celia (Juno Temple). The eldest adopted daughter, a young actress, Anne (Romola Garai) is in love with Foreign Office official Lawrence (Charlie Cox).
Anne’s lifestyle is all London-parties and countryside picnics and it is changed dramatically after one of her friends, a young MP (David Tennant) speaks out against British government and Hilter and shortly after that is found dead. Her suspicion and sense of dread is compounded by Anne’s discovery of hidden recordings with some secret Government information.
Anne’s journey of unveiling the truth lies not only in the political world of Britain ruled by Chamberlain’s government, but it also reveals great family drama, a tragedy of her personal fears. Romola Garai is brilliant in delivering her character’s fears, sense of betrayal, confusion and, finally, terror. She is supported by great performances of her screen siblings, Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple, and the remarkable Julie Christie as Aunt Elizabeth.
Glorious 39 is the first film for Stephen Poliakoff after a 10-year break, during which he focused on TV dramas for BBC. That is probably the reason why film feels like it belongs to TV screen rather then cinema. The cinematography by Zac Nicholson is picturesque eye-candy, but it does not help in conveying the sense the horror of upcoming war and our heroine’s panic.
Stephen Poliakoff deliberately stayed away from the war footage and instead showed Britain as it was the edge of WWII. One of the surreal pictures shows scenes when people have to abandon their pets and take them to be “put down” to vets. The pictures of pets are almost horrific, as well as the condition of Anne, who discovers secrets that can totally ruin her whole concept of life.
However, despite brilliant performances and some surreal pictures, the film does not deliver the sense of horror. Poor editing and slow pace makes this film very hard to enjoy and follow the director’s vision. It seems the director wants to show too many interesting things that are hard to put into one film. In this case a longer frame of TV dramas feels like a better choice.
Glorious 39 is out today.