I’m going to have to stop saying that I don’t enjoy serious, grown-up Dramas, because it’s patently untrue… could this be a sign that I’m maturing? Heaven forbid!
Glorious 39 (2009) is a British period-murder-mystery-spy-thriller, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, concerning a conspiracy at the highest levels of British society to appease the Nazis and prevent that pesky Winston Churchill from becoming prime minister… by bumping off anyone who says boo about it! Stumbling into this hornet’s nest is an innocent young actress named ‘Anne Keyes’ (Romola Garai), whose idyllic life as the eldest (adopted) daughter of a rich and influential family is turned upside down when she discovers a sinister set of secret recordings in her father’s shed. The suspense and paranoia builds from there, as she slips further down the rabbit hole, and struggles to maintain her sanity while the world edges closer and closer to war.
This film received rather mixed reviews at the time, with several critics suggesting that it was a bit on the slow side, but I have a fairly short attention span and I found myself thoroughly gripped throughout. I’ll agree that the plot might not hold up to much hard-headed scrutiny, and the ending is a little lukewarm, but as an impressionistic mood piece, rich with metaphor and symbolism, I thought it was highly successful. It also sheds a light on a rather shameful period in British history that I wasn’t aware of before… although the characters and crimes are all fictitious, many of the attitudes and opinions that fuel them are not. It’s easy to sit back smugly and tut-tut over how long it took America to get its ass in gear, but we Brits have to accept that we weren’t quite as quick off the mark as we should have been either! Of course in hindsight, the “Munich Pact” seems ridiculously naive… as if there’s such a thing as a trustworthy genocidal maniac! Poliakoff suggests that at the time the English upper classes were more afraid of Communism than they were of Fascism… so they presumably felt they were siding with the lesser of two evils? I watched a fascinating documentary the other day about Stalin’s behaviour during the war, and I was staggered by how he went about “running” his country. Imprisoning and/or executing anyone who shows the slightest intelligence or initiative, simply because you’re afraid they’ll try to depose you, isn’t exactly a smart strategic play, is it? Oy! But enough of my ill-educated ramblings about world history… and back to my ill-educated ramblings about cinema!
There are some top-drawer performances here from an incredible, all-star cast: On the chap’s side of things, you have Bill Nighy, David Tennant, Jeremy Northam, Christopher Lee, Hugh Bonneville and Tom Goodman-Hill… and on the lady’s side, you have Garai, Julie Christie, Juno Temple, Jenny Agutter and Muriel Pavlow! Actually, Agutter doesn’t really get much to say here, but her role (as the family’s seemingly oblivious matriarch) is a pivotal one… and Christie is fantastic as the intimidating ‘Aunt Elizabeth’, whose passive-aggression keeps everyone in line! I hadn’t made the connection myself, but apparently I’ve already seen Garai several times before… most notably in The Crimson Petal and the White as ‘Sugar’, and Atonement as ‘Briony Tallis’ (Aged 18). She has to do an unenviable amount of heavy lifting here, carrying almost every scene, as her character goes from arranging cosy garden parties to dodging murderous secret agents and peeling back ever more disturbing layers of betrayal… but I’m happy to report that she’s more than up to the task!
My main motivation for buying this film though was the presence of Miss Temple, who has fast become my favourite British actress… not simply because she’s very beautiful and very talented, but because she’s so prolific and has such an eclectic oeuvre! If asked to pick a “desert island” actor… a single performer, whose work I’d be happy to be stranded with in isolation… then Temple would be my immediate and unequivocal first choice (assuming they continued to deliver her latest DVDs via helicopter drop, of course). I can’t imagine ever getting bored of the films she makes, because they’re all so different and so intriguing in their own way. And I love how she’s used here, as Anne’s adorable younger sister, ‘Celia’, whose upbeat innocence gradually grows more sinister, as the true extent of her family’s involvement is revealed. She reminded me a little of Michael Palin’s character in Brazil… a perfectly charming and cheerful sort, who’ll whistle a merry tune as they’re signing your death warrant, and be terribly offended if you swear at them for it.