Threatened by the impending ‘little war’ the aristocracy, fearing their way of life will be destroyed by Hitler’s army, adopt an aggressive strategy of appeasement and it is this anxiety which propels the plot of Poliakoff’s script forward. The uncertainty and tension of the late summer of 1939 is our scene and an intriguing and poignant journey into the darkness of war produces an unforgettable drama from a writer and director whose ability to illuminate the harrowing detail of betrayal and heartache has never been more potent.
The formidable cast, eager to work with Poliakoff in the first feature production for over a decade, is headed by Romola Garai, recently seen in the title role of the BBC’s latest production of Emma, as Anne Keyes, the adopted eldest child of an aristocratic family with a rich history of high ranking public servants. Anne’s father is Sir Alexander, Bill Nighy in what can be considered one of his most impressive performances yet as the grave, morally ambiguous member of parliament with an agenda hidden deep within the labyrinths of power.
Their relationship is our safe haven in the film. When news of war breaks and hearts flutter with arrivals and disappearances Anna and her father console one another and Nighy is perfect as the solemn, solicitous patriarch whose family are integral to the nation’s fate. Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple are Sir Alexander’s children by birth and their complicity and active part in the family’s fortune comes to overshadow the carefree and affectionate relationship they share with Anna when the film begins. Every relationship has a truth and a solidity to it that is Poliakoff’s forte, and it compels each and every twist with great power.
Charlie Cox plays Lawrence, Anna’s lover and a middling civil servant whose fate is buffeted by the class-invoked tempest that results from the declaration of war. He is a sympathetic in a well cast role, and thanks to the overbearing air of suspicion his agenda and manner is constantly under scrutiny. His friendship with Hector Haldane, played with a frenzy and passion by David Tennant, and a fateful birthday celebration for Sir Alexander brings together the family with several shady government officers whose silence and reverence for the host of the party fuels a distrust in Anna that has devastating consequences for all involved.
Poliakoff’s contribution to film and television is unparalleled and it with great pleasure that we welcome him back onto the big screen. His recent television works, including The Lost Prince and Shooting the Past, are works of such complexity and grace that even a minor work is considered a glowing achievement in the field. Glorious 39 has moments of true genius, from the stunningly original method of establishing the transition from present to the past to the message from the grave Anna receives is a chilling and bold spin on a cliched turn.
The camerawork is almost Kubrick-esque as the handheld tracking shots following characters as they move through the shadowy interiors of houses or into running into rapidly collapsing external spaces is breathtaking. The rose pink skies over the quiet Norfolk hills contrasts perfectly with the cluttered, smoke scarred London with its cacophonous clash of bells; every location is perfect and serves the story well. The ruins of an old cathedral in the family grounds is an evocative environment and the various ways it is used to further the plot is thrilling in its invention.
The language is beautiful and precise, the prosaic nature of government and family politics is rendered with such imagination and poise that the plot, as it unravels, is gripping at every turn and the scenes we encounter as Anna’s world closes in on her are filled with emotional authenticity. The use of a Keats poem to foreshadow a key plot point is a moment of joy.
The opulence of scenery, of performance and complexity to this tale is so overwhelming that to attempt to cast a critical eye upon its entirety is futile. This is a powerful masterwork whose elements combine to produce a moving, thrilling film.
Glorious 39 is out in cinemas on the 20th of November.