"Friends and Crocodiles" traces the changing relationship of maverick entrepreneur Paul Reynolds and his assistant Lizzie Thomas over a period of 20 years from the beginnings of the Thatcher era to the bursting of the dot.com bubble.
1939 is set between present-day London and the idyllic British countryside in the time before the beginning of the Second World War. At a time of uncertainty and high tension, the story revolves around the formidable Keyes family, who are keen to uphold and preserve their very traditional way of life. The eldest sibling Anne is a budding young actress who is in love with Foreign Office official Lawrence, but her seemingly perfect life begins to dramatically unravel when she stumbles across secret recordings of the pro-appeasement movement. While trying to discover the origin of these recordings, dark secrets are revealed which lead to the death of a great friend. As war breaks out Anne discovers the truth and flees to London to try to confirm her suspicions, but she is caught and imprisoned and only then does she finally begin to discover how badly she has been betrayed. Written by
A glorious triumph of the drama of anxiety and suspense
Stephen Poliakoff, Britain's own resident television drama genius (both writer and director), has really outdone himself this time with his first feature film in ten years. This film bears all the traditional hallmarks of Poliakoff obsessions: the evocative power of the past, the magic of memory, the mystical bonds of extended family connections, the hidden energies of secrets kept buried for too long, and the shattering consequences of the revelation of truth which has been suppressed. This film is set in 1939 in Britain, and what it reveals is one of the most terrifying of all the untold stories in which the true and secret history of Britain abounds. The British are remarkable for their ostrich qualities, and they have always been experts at not knowing what they do not want to know, and also at thinking the unsustainable. Here Poliakoff partially strips the veneer from the genteel surface, but I wish he had gone further and been more explicit even than this. His subject is the aristocratic Nazi sympathizers of the Neville Chamberlain clique who tried to prevent Britain entering the War, and wished not only to appease Hitler but to submit to him in the fashion of the Vichy Regime. We must never forget that Chamberlain had been a member of the Eugenics Society, and just imagine the fate of the British Jews if these people had succeeded in their aim. What Poliakoff does not state, and perhaps does not even know, is that the more fanatical of the pro-Nazis in Britain were members of the secret society known in Germany as the Vehme (pronounced 'fame-uh'), which carried out ruthless campaigns of assassination of political enemies, such as are shown in this film. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Vehme assassinated more than 6,000 leading members of the political opposition inside Germany, thereby so enfeebling the opposition parties that they had no effective leadership left even before the Reichstag fire which Hitler arranged as his pretext for the Enabling Act which gave him the supra-legal powers to establish his absolute dictatorship and dispense with the opposition altogether by arresting and executing their leaders with the official sanction of the state. A typical Vehme-style execution on the continent was carried out by hanging, and an example of one of those which occurred in London in our own time was the assassination by hanging of Roberto Calvi in 1982 ordered by the P-2 Masons of Italy, who are linked to the Vehme. (It was no accident that Blackfriars Bridge was chosen for the hanging, as the Black Friars are the Dominicans, who were the order who presided over the Inquisition, and Calvi was 'banker to the Vatican' as the newspapers have often called him.) It is interesting that one of the victims of the British Vehme shown in the film is someone we see hanging upside down in a sack. The leading members of the Vehme call themselves the 'Wissende' ('knowing ones'). One of their secret signs of recognition is to turn their knives round at the dinner table so that the points are towards themselves. This harrowing and extremely nail-biting film shows the slow and painful discovery of the British Vehme at work, as perceived by the adopted daughter of one of them, who is a British MP played by Bill Nighy with his usual brilliance and effectiveness. The terrified and totally apolitical adopted daughter who discovers the truth is played with rising levels of hysteria and terror by the amazingly talented Romola Garai. Her eyes get wider and wider with each passing minute of screen time as her fear mounts. Her sinister aunt is played by Julie Christie with menacing effectiveness, and her brother and sister (not adopted, but 'blood family' to Nighy) are played by Juno Temple and Eddie Redmayne. All of them are horrifyingly convincing at being blood-conspirators working for Hitler inside the British Establishment. The scariest of all the cast, as the spy Balcombe, is Jeremy Northam, more sinister and menacing than I have ever seen him before, and that is saying something, as he only has to remove the pillow case from his head when he wakes up every morning in order to frighten the very flies on the wall. The British Foreign Office in 1939 probably contained a proportion of civil servants who might be divided as follows: one third Nazi sympathisers, appeasers, or 'Petainists', one third Soviet agents, and only about one third simply loyal to their country. The Home Office had in proportion fewer communists but more fascists than the Foreign Office. Britain in the 20th century produced traitors of all kinds at such a rate that there was simply no way of keeping track of them all, and few of them have ever been publicly acknowledged. (The handful the public knows about were not necessarily the most important ones anyway.) Just why the anonymity of the fascist traitors is still being protected today is something of a puzzle. This film goes a long way towards ripping the lid off this scandal, but the film is in no way a political film, it is a personal drama in the format of a hyper-tense thriller. Poliakoff was too clever to turn this into a didactic piece, and keeps it very much as a typical Poliakoff-style personal and family drama. The production values are marvellous, the music is good, the locations are absolutely staggering, everyone is brilliant, and the Poliakoff script and direction are the best of all. If anyone is looking for British television drama to rival the American MAD MEN (2007-2010, see my review), Poliakoff's TV series are the answer every time. And for a thriller feature film with real depth and meaning, how much further can anyone go than this one? Poliakoff is the Rembrandt of contemporary British filmed drama, who paints the light magically and miraculously with a uniquely dark and Manichean brush.
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