I’m in something of a quandary about Glorious 39, a rare cinema outing by acclaimed writer/director Stephen Poliakoff who specialises in making literate thoughtful dramas for the BBC. When I interviewed Bill Nighy in February he was bubbling with enthusiasm for working with Poliakoff again, having won a Golden Globe for his lead role in the sublime 2005 TV film Gideon’s Daughter. Sadly Glorious 39 has all the recognisable Poliakoff concerns but inexplicably falls apart in exploring them.
In the present day the elderly Walter (Christopher Lee) narrates to his young cousin the events of the glorious summer of 1939 when the world stood on the brink of war – a prospect with which the private dramas of the Keyes family, in which Walter played a minor part, seemed intertwined. Romola Garai, who sparkled in the lead role in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, stars as Anna the eldest but adopted daughter of Bill Nighy’s aristocratic Tory MP Sir Alexander Keyes. Nighy is rather good as a compassionate man whose experiences in WWI have so unfitted him for dealing with another war that he tries to retreat into the private realm to dote on his children. Jeremy Northam is startlingly good as the sinister MI5 agent who dogs this retreat from Westminster while David Tennant has a nice cameo as a Scottish MP who makes a passionate attack on the policy of appeasement at a Keyes garden party. Anna (Garai) has little time for all this, being more concerned with her budding film career and boyfriend in the Foreign Office (Charlie Cox). However she discovers recordings of secret meetings revealing an MI5 plot to murderously suppress any opposition to Neville Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement and is thrown into a dangerous world of espionage and intimate betrayal.
Glorious 39 starts as a thoughtful drama but unexpectedly develops Hitchockian paranoia. Poliakoff’s trademark concerns with memory, family, the moving image, and the impact of the past on the present are all present and correct and Glorious 39 is wonderfully atmospheric. All the performances are very good enabling Poliakoff to deliver some shocks with devastating emotional impact amidst a string of unsettling suspense set-pieces including a kidnapped child. Ultimately though the film degenerates into sub-Hitchockian pastiche, undermined by the knowledge that whatever action Anna takes is irrelevant to war being declared or Churchill becoming PM, as this film will not have a Tarantinoesque disregard for historical fact. Poliakoff thus switches genres to introduce a Victorian madwoman in the attic horror story before contriving a deeply odd ‘meaningful’ ending.
A character study that made us empathise with decent individuals promoting Appeasement for good reasons, even though they are on the wrong side of history, by re-inscribing their uncertainty about what the future held would be prime Poliakoff. Sadly Poliakoff eschews this route meaning that this misfiring thriller should have stayed on the small-screen.