It’s always tempting to draw comparisons between films, whether that’s pointing out that two movies both have Sunshine in the title and Alan Arkin in the cast, or flagging up the many parallels between Atonement and Glorious 39. The high society family fronted by a politically-involved patriarch. Romola Garai. Juno Temple. These similarities are incidental, but noticeable (though we can’t tell you the biggest item in the Atonement-Glorious 39 venn diagram without straying too far into spoiler territory). But look beyond them, because drawing comparisons between Atonement and Glorious 39 would be unfair to both films.
Of course, what Glorious 39 has is Poliakoff – who was variously been called the prince, darling and king-of-the-castle of TV drama – behind the pen, and the camera, this being his first film since 1991’s Close My Eyes. Poliakoff has said that as a Jew, he was keen to explore the idea of appeasement during World War 2. Glorious 39 centres on a conspiracy between the British aristocracy and MI5 to make a deal with Hitler, at a time when anti-Semitism permeated the aristocracy. There were some MPs who were anti-appeasement, but their lives were not exactly made easy.
As the title implies, the film is set in 1939, opening during the build-up to World War 2. Movie star and socialite Anne Keyes (Garai) finds some secret government recordings hidden away at her family’s country house, in a barn that’s meant to be out of bounds (presumably because it’s got secret government recordings stashed inside it). Her Tory MP father, Alexander (Nighy) explains them away, but Anne isn’t convinced – not least because the recording features a friend of the family, a young MP named Hector (Tennant). Then Hector kills himself, the first in a series of weird and worrying events. Babies that go missing and reappear, unexplained deaths, children imparting strange and ominous warnings; as Anne becomes more and more suspicious, her idyllic life falls apart. Does she really have anything to worry about, or is she just going mad? And what does her family have to do with it all?
Glorious 39 is shot through with feelings of unease, its gorgeous shots and costumes offset by a growing sense of menace. This is a tale of paranoia. Anne is left questioning what is and isn’t true, who she can and can’t trust, her reasoning abilities, her instincts – and her own family, a seemingly idyllic unit into which she was adopted as a baby. It is, also, an interesting portrayal of the toffier end of British society, which cares less about what is right or wrong, and is instead interested in preserving the nice, easy status quo at any cost.But what is the cost? Where initially Glorious 39 looks to be an ensemble affair, Anne’s emergence as the sole protagonist gives it a little less oomph than if it had really worked with its cast. (Speaking of which, fans of Tennant and Lee should be aware that while they’re in it, they’re not in it very much.) There are so many ideas and themes in Glorious 39 that could have added more depth and intrigue, rather than making it all about Anne. At just over two hours it’s also begging to be streamlined, but it’s still a solid, watchable period piece.
EXTRAS *** An audio commentary with director Poliakoff and star Garai; three festurettes – On the Edge of War: uncovering Glorious 39 (an 8-minute behind the scenes look, and interviews with the cast and creators), Close Up: Stephen Polikoff (a 25-minute interview with the director), and Glorious 39: The London Premiere; a gallery of costume sketches; a photo gallery; the theatrical trailer.