It is impossible to talk about this movie without some plot spoilers, hopefully it won’t put you off reading my review, it may just convince you to see this underappreciated movie.
There is a line in the song Won’t Get Fooled Again by The Who (great song by the way!):
“But the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed”
But history, or at least our perception of it does change and has changed, and it makes our view of the world very different. It is often suggested that the victors in war write the history, this is true but over time other opinions start to appear. My first experience of a World War II movie from a German prospective was Germany, Pale Mother (1980) directed by Helma Sanders-Brahms, I saw it whilst in my late teens and although I didn’t actually enjoy the film it did change the way I have looked at war movies ever since. The one subject of the war that seems to have been overlooked by British filmmakers is “Appeasement”, Glorious 39 being a rare film on the subject. It is also a subject that is largely glossed over in school history lessons (at least it was when I was at school). A little background on the subject: Neville Chamberlain was elected Prime Minister in 1937, he proceeded to do all in his power to avert war with Germany, most notably the Munich Agreement in 1938. Following this he announced that they had secured “peace for our time” and was declared a national hero.
Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, Glorious 39 is a conspiracy thriller set against a backdrop of this complex political situation just before the outbreak of war. Told in flashback from present-day London, young Michael Walton (Toby Regbo) visits his ageing cousins Walter and Oliver Page (Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave) to talk about family history particularly his great aunt, Anne Keyes. We are quickly transported back to the summer of 1939. Anne (Romola Garai) and her siblings Celia (Juno Temple) and Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) are arranging a dinner party to celebrate their father’s birthday. The farther in question, Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy) is the head of an upper-class family and member of parliament. Other guests include their mother Maud (Jenny Agutter), Hector (David Tennant) a family friend and also Member of Parliament, Lawrence (Charlie Cox) Anne’s lover and Joseph Balcombe (Jeremy Northam) a shady government agent.
What starts out as a country house drama rapidly descends into a paranoid thriller that could easily have come from the pen of John Buchan. As war becomes inevitable the upper classes look to preserve their way of life, the society balls continue as if nothing has changed and their existence is a step removed from the middle and lower classes. And this is the key to the characters, their intentions cease to be about right and wrong and become about preserving their privileged and outdated way of life making the movie about a different idea of right and wrong. Part of the beauty of the piece is the effortless way it delicately weaves the national and international story into a more personal family story. Although the story itself is fictional the background is real, the pre-Churchill government really did use the secret service to suppress opposition to the policy of appeasement. Have things really changed that much in the 70 years that followed?
Away from any themes or morals the movie works as both a paranoid thriller and a costume drama. There are scenes that look like imitations of Hitchcock, some work better than others but together they perfectly capture an air of mounting paranoia. The look of the film is as good as any regular costume drama. The acting is fantastic from a brilliant cast that reads like a who’s who of British talent (including: Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, Jeremy Northam, Christopher Lee, Corin Redgrave, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter and former Dr Who David Tennant) it is actually Romola Garai who stands out. Having already excelled as the teenage version Briony Tallis in Atonement she again proves she should be a bigger star.
A great film that was criminally treated on its cinema release, check it out on DVD.
Four Stars out of Five
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