Glorious 39


Who to trust in a world at war?

Main Cast: Romola Garai, Bill Nighy

Director: Stephen Poliakoff

Is there anything as inherently complicated, fascinating and potentially devastating as family dynamics?  As children become adults all their patterns begin to shift and morph, but old habits die hard.  Add in a major world political crisis and a family at the heart of the national stage and what you have is a combination as lethal as dynamite.  What you have is Glorious 39.

Romola Garai stars as Anne, the eldest of 3 children of a minor aristocrat in 1939 Great Britain.  Anne was adopted when her parents thought they were unable to have biological children, only to have two pregnancies follow.  Anne was the leader growing up, given an elevated status as the oldest and as her parents’ way of making sure she knew she was loved as much as the biological children.  The film opens in the summer of 1939 and though times are wonderful for Anne’s family, things are changing quickly.  As war looms, familiar patterns begin to warp and Anne begins to fear that all she knew was false.

Glorious 39 (Glorious being a nickname for Anne used primarily by her brother as well as an apt description of her happy innocence at the beginning of the film) places a single family into the complex political situation facing all of Britain in 1939.  World War I was still fresh in the minds and memories of the middle aged upper classes – images too terrible to either remember or forget.  Fear of going back to the horror was making for widespread isolationism and unwillingness to enter into a war with Germany.   Appeasement under Chamberlain was already becoming a well established practice and there were many who thought it the only reasonable way to deal with Hitler.  Those who supported Churchill in the desire to fight were not popular, especially in the moneyed upper classes.

Anne is an actress, a child her family somehow begins to see as inherently different from her siblings in basic nature.  They love her but it becomes increasingly difficult to understand her.  She seems to be hysterical and not particularly stable, though she is certain of her versions of events.  We all begin to question her judgment and the actions of her family as she finds herself in the middle of what looks like some sort of awful and violent conspiracy.  Is she blowing things out of proportion, is she getting delusional or is someone trying to gaslight her?  The primary action of the film follows Anne as she struggles to find a truth that may be only in her head or may be bigger than she can imagine.

Glorious 39 describes itself as a thriller and it is – a psychological thriller.  There’s some fairly gruesome imagery but this is no slasher film, it’s all about relationships, inner strength and confidence and the things we do for and against our own families under times of great stress.  The character of Anne leads the way, but she is beautifully supported by a tremendous cast.  Bill Nighy is brilliant as her slightly scatter-brained father who loves her deeply and without reservation.  Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple are ciphers as her loving and perhaps a little too concerned siblings.  Julie Christie is a complete delight as Anne’s aunt – dotty, vain, unquestionably elitist and undeniably untrustworthy.  Lesser roles are filled by the very capable David Tennant, Jeremy Northam (he does a damn good creepy) and Jenny Agutter.  Always a standout, even in the smallest role, is Christopher Lee as the aged contemporary teller of Anne’s tale.  Nothing gives a story gravitas like the voice of Christopher Lee.

Also stunning is the cinematography by Danny Cohen.  The English countryside is not only breathtaking but it’s also perfectly sinister with its ruins and open, empty spaces.  It’s terrifically used to help create tension and a sense of time and place.  As a period piece as well as a thriller, the setting needs to be perfect – not overwhelming the plot but entirely suited to the era.  Glorious 39 succeeds spectacularly in making this so – kudos to writer/director Stephen Poliakoff for that seamless creation.

My only real complaint about the film is that Romola Garai is a little wooden.  It’s not a consistent issue, but she’s spotty.  By the end of the film she seems to have completely inhabited the character of Anne, but there are portions during which I could feel her “acting”.  She carries almost the full weight of the film and doesn’t have nearly the experience of some of her co-stars and in places it definitely shows.

If you’re interested in historical drama or like a good period thriller I definitely recommend Glorious 39.  Though it’s rated R and some younger viewers will find a few scenes scary, older teenagers should be fine.  Mine not only handled the material without issue, but really liked the film and actually learned something.  4 stars out of 5 for this period thriller.

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