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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.
Reviewers simply don't "get" the underlying tension of the film, which
probably relies too much on viewers' understanding that many, many
aristocrats/Tories were trying to avoid war with Hitler and often
sympathized with him. If you don't know that, then you don't grasp the
stakes of the film. Few British people would NOT know this, given that
their abdicated king Edward and his wife Wallis Simpson openly admired
Hitler, and many other high-borns found him quite right to attack
democracy in its heart.
Romula Garai, one of the world's finest new actresses, carries the movie with her endless shading of emotions, her eyes opening to the horror that her family really is despite its large, warm embrace of her. And Bill NIghy is absolutely transcendent as her loving father and Tory MP who is supposed to negotiate American aid to Britain and who lets us know he is fiercely anti-war because of the destruction and death it deals. Is he what he seems, though?
I found this one of the few grounded portrayals of the British upper class attitudes pre-war than anything else I've yet seen.
I had the privilege of attending the world premiere of this film at the Toronto International Film Festival last night. It tells the story of the aristocratic Keyes family in the days leading up to the outbreak of WWII. The father played superbly by Bill Nighy is an influential MP and an all round "good egg" of a dad to his three children. The oldest daughter Ann, played by Romola Garai is an adopted child but seems to fit in perfectly with her younger siblings and is the life and soul of the family. The film starts as a classic English period piece with lavish settings in Norfolk and London involving picnics and parties. However, as war gets closer, dramatic and strange events involving the family and friends slowly change the mood of the film. Other reviewers have made comparisons to Hitchcock's films and I have to agree with them. I enjoyed the film but there were definitely a few situations that did not ring true. The ending was particularly clumsy and there were some strange scenes that just didn't seem to fit. At 130 minutes it was probably 20 minutes too long. There were good performances by Julie Christie as a batty aunt and Jeremy Northam as a sinister government official. A good watch if you like British mysteries
Though there have been books and other films that deal with the
dissidence between the aristocrats and the general populace of England
around the topic of WW II, this beautifully executed 'historical
thriller' brings many aspects of those discrepancies of opinion to
light in a manner not unlike the similar thought processes in Germany
at the same time: the gentry of Germany turned a blind eye to the
events surrounding them (The Final Solution) in order to believe in
what they chose to believe as a promise for stabilization and world
importance as a genteel country. Writer/Director Stephen Poliakoff has
based his examination of this problem on focusing on the life of one
particular character whose fate was the standard of the dispossessed.
The year is 1939 and the aristocratic family of Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy) and his wife Maud (Jenny Agutter) are living what seems to be an idyllic life with their children Ralph (Eddie Redmayne), Celia (Juno Temple) and the eldest, Anne (Romula Garai) who we soon discover was adopted before the Keyes discovered they could bear children on their own. Anne is a beautiful creative actress who seems to make the family proud. The family is visited by an old friend Hector (David Tennant) who at dinner is very vocal about the fact that Hitler is a threat to England and that England must stop Hitler before he destroys them instead of pursuing a course of appeasement of Hitler that would prevent disturbance of their elegant way of life on the island of England. It is obvious that Sir Alexander is more concerned with his duties as a member of parliament and his maintenance of his family history and wealth, and his responses to Hector as well as to the mysterious Balcombe (Jeremy Northam) from the Foreign Office and the young Lawrence (Charlie Cox), a new member of the Foreign Office who is courting Anne, suggest subterfuge.
The family is visited by the very proper Aunt Elizabeth (Julie Christie) and while the entire family is on picnic, an infant transiently disappears while under Anne's care. From this point the story takes a dark turn: Anne continues filming in London with her close friend, actor Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville), and Anne discovers some phonograph records in the basement of the Keyes home, records that contain not fox trots but instead 'conversations' from meetings. Suspicions about evil derring-do arise when the family learns that Hector has committed suicide soon followed by the suicide of Gilbert and eventually the bizarre discovery of Lawrence's body among the pet animals ordered to be put to death to make the people of England more ready for abrupt changes. War with Germany begins and changes the atmosphere and results in changes in the Keyes family: Anne is imprisoned by the family because 'she is really not one of us' and unravels the harrowing mystery of the Keyes' family involvement in the dark events of the present and the past.
The mood of England of 1939 is beautifully captured by cinematographer Danny Cohen and the musical score by Adrian Johnston illustrates the dichotomy of the free-spirited Anne and the dark underpinnings of the Keyes family. Romola Garai is excellent in her treacherous role as are the other stars. Small roles by Toby Regbo, Christopher Lee, Corin Redgrave and others make this a cast rich in some of the finest British actors of the day. GLORIOUS 39 ('Glorious' is the nickname given Anne) is an enlightening film that addresses many significant issues too infrequently addressed by works of history.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
On its surface, this is an old-fashioned paranoid thriller about a
woman who's suddenly afraid to trust anyone, including her nearest and
dearest. For window dressing there's a stately country mansion and
pre-WWII vintage costumes and cars, plus a top-notch cast of British
But writer-director Stephen Poliakoff is known for off-beat storytelling, and that's not always a good thing. This film is much too unpleasant to serve as an "entertainment" (warning: dead pets!), but has too many lapses in credibility to be taken seriously as a political statement, and way too many plot holes to work as an intellectual puzzler.
There is atmosphere to spare, and some scenes succeed at producing goosebumps...as long as the viewer doesn't actually think about them. Consider the scene where our actress heroine is in a screening room, doing voice-overs, and an actor on the movie screen suddenly breaks character and seems to speak directly to her, from beyond the grave. Goosebumps! But plot-wise, this scene makes no sense at all. Why didn't the actor just speak to her in person when he had the chance? Duh! It's a contrived scene that exists only to produce a transient effect, not to advance the story (or even make sense). There's a lot of this flimflammery in the movie.
The biggest gaff of this sort is the story-within-the-story framing device: how could the two narrators (played by Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave) possibly know the details of the story that unfolds? One was a child at the time, and the other an infant, and even if they were later told copious intimate details of the goings-on (unlikely), they still could not have known the secret activities and state of mind of our heroine. The frame is there for another reason, so that we won't guess until the final moment that our heroine is still alive; and because the director knows the frame really makes no sense, we never actually hear Lee and Redgrave narrate a word of the story, because at crucial points the viewers would realize that the framing device is nonsensical. This kind of narrative trickery lacks integrity, and it's fatal to a movie with the high moral pretensions of Glorious 39.
This glossy movie is engaging from scene to scene, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One of the weakest parts of this film was that it began (and ended)
with a rather pointless visit to the future, introducing a young
descendant of the family in the main plot, who is apparently
investigating their family history. It is very unlikely on meeting
elderly relatives (apparently only for the second time ever) that
within a few minutes they would launch into an extremely complex story
about an estranged relative. There are not too many teenagers who would
be interested and confident enough to approach relatives they don't
have a relationship with, about the 'family tree'. The film could stand
alone without this subplot.
Also the implausibility of Anne reuniting with her adoptive family in old age and looking relatively pleased about seeing them, ruins the conclusion of the film. The plot did not need this complication. A far more effective ending would have been Anne disappearing in her nightdress (with the audience unsure whether she has lost her mind or whether she has escaped an adoptive family who are poisoning her).
Anne Keyes disturbingly uncovers a sinister plot without apparent
motive in a story told as a flashback in a way that is helpful to its
This is a very British film about guilty pasts, family values and inner strength set around the outbreak of WW2. As with much British mystery drama on screen there is a lavish dedication to quality acting, strong story telling, and brilliant cinematography. It is a compelling watch despite some plot flaws and moments when the story doesn't quite flow as convincingly as it should. But there is tension, intrigue, suspense, and menace in just the right quantities to keep us gripped and interested.
Romola Garai gives us a superbly convincing portrayal of Anne with some great support notably from Jeremy Northam (Balcombe), Sam Kubrick-Finney (young Walter), Hugh Bonnevile (Gilbert) and Juno Temple (Celia). Some familiar faces also provide strong cameos.
My one reservation about the film, and what stops me from awarding more than eight out of ten, is that it is slightly too cold, too austere, too abrupt when, perhaps, we are in need of a little warmth and camaraderie. But this is a story about the outbreak of war and the destruction heaped upon truth, privilege and family values and so it is a matter of subjective judgement. You should go and see it for Romola Garai's performance alone.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Glorious 39, when I first heard of it, ticked all of the boxes for what
I would normally like in a film - Romola Garai, David Tennant, Bill
Nighy, 1930s setting, war drama, so on and so forth. In what now seems
a somewhat exaggerated tidbit of praise, Company called the film "This
year's Atonement". As somebody who has both seen and read Atonement in
great detail, these are big words that create big expectations, not all
of which were met, unfortunately.
Acting-wise, I felt that the cast as a whole worked well with the dialogue and character types that they had been given. Bill Nighy is, as always, a delight to watch, but his dialogue was not so much of a delight. If somebody finished every single sentence to me with "darling", as did their children, I would become suspicious of them long before Anne ever did. However I rather feel that Romola Garai has been, of late, a sort of amorphous mystery woman who is at first playful to the point of annoyance, followed by quivering and tearful, concluded with blankly staring into space. 'Emma', 'Daniel Deronda' and even to an extent 'Atonement' seem to follow this much of the time. As much as I like her as an actress, I never feel that there is any real defining trait (nor intelligence?) to her characters, though perhaps this is because of input other than her own.
Hugh Bonneville and David Tennant were excellent in slightly lesser roles, although their close relationships to the main characters remain the most intriguing mysteries of the film. I found myself repeatedly wishing that they hadn't died, if only to have two likable characters to watch by the end.
My main gripes with the film were the ridiculous framing of the story with modern-day, and of course the ending. The story-telling by the cousins was both unnecessary and implausible, and I would have been content with the 1930s parts on their own, as I gained nothing from the modern day section except that Walter remained a weirdo right up until old age. His character as a whole seemed like a cardboard insert to remind us that yes, we should be scared, and yes, this is a very creepy situation. Did he have parents? Did anybody ever know where he was at any given moment? How did he manage to have his own personal bubble wherever he went? The ending was, undoubtedly, the most pointless attempt at a dramatic ending that I have seen yet. I dislike being so harsh about it, but the Atonement comparison had set me up for a surprise ending that really hits home and makes you see the whole story in a new light. Instead I saw an elderly lady sneering at her cousins, presumably for having been in the same place as some people who did bad things.
To summarise, I guess I must say that Glorious 39 felt like more of a patchwork of filmic ideas (and clichés) than a coherent plot. Very few surprises were actually unexpected - you cannot expect an audience to have the same emotional connections to characters as your lead does, nor their naivety. We will suspect anybody and everybody, more so if they seem good on first appearances. And of course, this applies doubly when we have rented it out because it is a mystery! The film had its good points, naturally - as has been mentioned, it was visually "sumptuous", particularly in regards to costuming. I felt that the subject matter and, to an extent, the characters had potential, but Poliakoff would have done well to approach a few friends with the script and ask "Does this make sense to you guys?".
Sorry Company, but Atonement this most definitely is not.
After finding secret pro-appeasement (for the Nazis) recordings Anne
(Garai) becomes involved in a secret, violent conspiracy, set in
England in 1939. After one of her friends who speaks out against Hitler
is found dead, Anne begins to dig deeper into the reasons for his
death. This is a very interesting movie. It is both compelling and slow
moving. It is tense but it drags in spots. It kept me watching but my
mind did wander a bit. This is overall a good movie but you need to be
in the mood for it. You really feel for Anne and the way her life
begins to fall apart. I am a fan of historical movies so I really liked
that aspect of it. This movie had the feel of a made-for-TV movie,
although it would have been an HBO movie with the quality of it. I
recommend this but again, it's not for everyone, and you need to be in
the mood to watch a movie like this one. I give it a B-.
Would I watch again? - Probably not
What a treat is this dark and serpentine story of conspiracy, betrayal
and innocence violated. It is the more powerful, compelling and
involving for its subtle and wonderfully gentle understatement.
A very English film, it presents genuine, familiar and engaging period performances from a fine cast headed by the extremely watchable Bill Nigh - who's character oozes honeyed treachery. It resonated strongly with me. The themes and characters are gripping.
Such a pity it was not made fifty years ago so that it could now be watched in authentic black and white. I've not noticed it on general release in the UK. I can't imagine why not - it will become a classic. I watched it without seeing any of the credits first, but recognised it after just a few minutes as the work of Stephen Poliakoff.
Watching this film gave me much pleasure. I commend it highly.
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