GLOURIOUS 39 goes against period expectations

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Rating: ★★★1/2 

Stephen Poliakoff, the poet Laureate of British television screens, again plies his trade in dark, insidious family secrets best left buried, this time for the big screen with Glorious 39.

This stately looking political whodunit, set in the immediate run up to World War Two, is a film of hairpin misdirection and audience rug-pulling. A garden path government conspiracy plot to appease Hitler, leads the viewer without indication or fair warning into the realms of paranoid, psychological terror. It’s as if Repulsion-era Polanski, started moonlighting as a director for Midsommer Murders.

Romola Garai in her first leading role proper since launching a promising career with I Capture the Castle, plays Anne Keyes, an upcoming actress and the adopted daughter of an aristocratic family trying in vain to avert the course of war so as to protect the establishment and their way of life.

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This is of course, in the hindsight of history, is a position of rose-tinted naivety, a point of view the film’s picturesque magic-hour opening makes all too plain before so much as a single line of dialogue has been uttered.

Whereas most will no doubt find this approach clumsily heavy handed, it comfortably locates the story in the Poliakoff cannon, alerting the viewer to the extent of how the heroine’s perception of reality is riddled with uncertainty. Whether or not you get off on the wrong foot with Glorious 39, largely depends on your affinity and familiarity with Poliakoff’s work, characterized by cleverly conceptualized, yet glaring symbolism.

Anne’s life is endangered and everything she thought she knew is held up for re-examination, after she stumbles across a seemingly innocent enough collection of gramophone records in a cordoned off section of her father’s vast estate. Playing what she believes to be a Waltz, she then becomes privy to the clandestine discussions of government officials planning to bump off Winston Churchill’s most vocal supporters to secure Neville Chamberlin’s seat of power and the chance to enter into negotiations for peace with Adolf Hitler.

screenshot_7_7059Before Anne has to start fighting for the truth and her life as a haunted, hunted sleuth-on-the run, Poliakoff makes the near ruinous decision of book-ending his story in the present day. Undoubtedly in surer hands, the set-up would have had plenty of ominous potential, suggesting secrets so harmful that their scars reach across time as well as bloodlines.

Surely, the intent was to allow a family plagued by memory through the generations, an opportunity to atone for their tunnel-visioned, manipulations of a past that is but a stone’s throw away from our present. But for however seriously Poliakoff wishes to take these scenes, simply for featuring a grave-faced Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave, this deceptive opening erronously lends the film the false air of a prestige picture, rather than the pulp thrills of the slightly sordid, big-budget genre piece it actually is.

These elder statesmen of the cast aren’t the only ones being shoe-horned into the film to try and bring in an altogether different type of audience for this kind of fare. Julie Christie is unremarkable in a role that never calls for, or remotely taxes her abilities, and Hugh Bonneville struggles with the wavering tone, though chief offender among them is unquestionably, Bill Nighy whose auto-cue line readings muffle every would-be thunderclap of revelation. The only resultant shock from his portentous dialogue is just how expositional they’re revealed to be in monotone. Laying out his back story as the first great war’s most unperturbed, indifferent veteran, it’s impossible to buy Anne’s father as a man driven to do everything within his political power to ensure war doesn’t devastate the country a second time.

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It’s a testament then, to Romola Garai’s uniformly excellent portrayal, that her efforts are able to sustain Nighy’s deadly sleepwalking. The discrepancy of liveliness in their scenes together is akin to watching an enthused dinner party host’s unsuccessful attempts at deflecting the comments of a thuddingly dull guest. Mercifully though, Garai is given a couple of screen partners worthy of her conviction in Eddie Redmayne as her suspicious brother, and Jeremy Northam as a government spook. Both convey distinct registers of disquieting malevolence and menace, see-sawing between The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Redmayne is certainly poised for great things after impressing with this, and more than holding his own with the impervious Julianne Moore in Savage Grace. Jeremy Northam is an actor whose every screen appearance leaves me bristling at the fact that no one other than me seems to think of him as the national treasure he ought to be regarded as. His role in the unfairly skipped-over Dean Spanley, provides a baffling question mark as to why leading roles continue to elude him. In the bones they do throw his way (and there’s hardly any meat on them here), there’s always the equally elusive promise of the generation-defining Sherlock Holmes that never was.

While they are to be applauded, the major cause for celebration (and relief for her fans) is the presence of Romola Garai, finally, once more in a leading role. It’s clear the actress relishes the opportunity to shoulder a film, never anything less than fully committed. It’s the kind of juicy part longtime admirers of her astounding stage work have been waiting to see replicated in some way on screen.

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Poliakoff seems to sense this occasion as well, and not content to just put her in the lead, he goes the extra mile of showing her off in it, more than matching the range of her portrayal with an ever-changing, eye-pleasing, wardrobe. Anne wears only the best contemporary designs afforded by her father’s wealth and standing, a new outfit for each and every scene. With more costume changes than Axl Rose at a Guns n’ Roses show, Garai never looks anything less than glorious, even when she’s running and screaming.

Beyond how well she wears the clothes, what impresses most is her gameness in the role, navigating each deeper cliff dive into evermore-uncertain genre territory with assuredness and ease when other members of the cast struggle. Watching the customary spark in her eyes slowly deaden, as the bodies of those challenging the “spineless leaders of democracy” pile up around her is a genuinely unnerving trajectory; one which charts in her eyes, body language and tone of voice, with traces of the similar psychological declines of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion or Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.

In visualizing the character’s deep descent, due credit must also be given to the make-up department; when Anne escapes a lengthy period of imprisonment, her complexion is that of a woman lost inside herself after scouring every inch of her soul.

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It helps that Garai is given some fantastically staged set pieces to hammer home the creeping sense of fear and confusion. One sequence couples chills with ingenious delivery of plot exposition; whispered lines between takes on the set of her latest movie, that Anne only discovers when recording additional dialogue in a film studio. Another turns an innocuous village vet’s into a pet cemetery with gothic stylings reminiscent of the great Val Lewton. While not all references reward (a creepy Omen-like child played by Stanley Kubrick’s grandson, is instead comically rotund and just as wooden as Nighy), these cinematic nods tend to delight whenever character motivations strain plausibility.

While you can certainly feel the tension in Garai’s eyes at every moment, it’s a shame that the film as a whole doesn’t earn her reactions. Sweepingly beautiful but unanchored camerawork renders the paranoia never more than moderate, leaving Glorious 39 neither convincing as a period piece (embellishing fact for gaudy chills) or as a thriller (overlong and mostly static), but its gothic leanings and the unwelcome colonizing of the protagonist’s home and mind, by way of a nod to surrealist cinema and the tradition of home invasion films, is unexpected and exciting.

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As with Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Glorious 39 inevitably suffers from the expectations of the auteur’s dedicated audience. Where you might expect to find a refined film, you have a thoroughly entertaining piece of pulp that’s no less.  preoccupied with Poliakoff’s usual themes of past guilt and people’s unknowing capacity for evil in pursuit of a cause.

A gloriously deranged surprise for the zealous cinephile, but far from the credible period re-creation that those most likely drawn to it will want it to be.

A version of this review was first published by Cine Outsider on April 11, 2010

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