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12 November 2009

Glorious but Grim

All of the fuss last night to get to the BFI in time for the Glorious 39 preview was worth it in the end, even if the people sitting next to me in the cinema may not have agreed (the man next to me and the woman directly behind me both had awful, hacking coughs, though, so I don't feel too bad). Even though the film was aired as part of LoFiFest, the screen was still fully packed--for once I couldn't see any spare seats. After a ten-year absence from the big screen, the world was obviously keen to see Stephen Poliakoff's return to the director's chair.

I hadn't really heard of Poliakoff when I booked my ticket to the preview--a family drama/thriller set at the break of World War II, that glorious summer of '39, and with Billy Nighy, Jeremy Northam, Romola Garai and other interesting actors seemed like my kind of film. And I was right. In fact, this was exactly the kind of movie I hoped the LoFiFest surprise film would be: by turns chilling and thrilling, the audience is never allowed to breathe easily for long enough to get too sentimental, but Garai's excellent acting does make for a very sympathetic female lead.

After an opening scene with three siblings, in their teens, frolicking amid a ruined castle while Adrian Johnston's haunting music leads us to believe that all is not as well as it might seem. Flash forward to the present day and a 20-something named Michael shows up at a flat near St Paul's Cathedral to meet two men--septuagenarian brothers Walter and (I think) Oliver--who he says are his cousins (actually, as the cousins of his grandmother, they are really his first cousins twice removed, but that's not important). He's studying history--specifically his family history--and wants to know more about his grandmother Celia and her older sister Anne. Apparently, Walter and Oliver are the last ones left of that generation. After some fiddling around with an old wireless (with the bells of St Paul's still ringing loudly in the background), the brothers begin to tell their tale...

Flashback to the summer of '39. It is a most glorious summer for the three children of Sir Alexander Keyes, a popular Tory MP played by Bill Nighy. Ralph works for the Foreign Office and has a habit of calling his sister "Glorious." Celia, the youngest, seems to be jealous of her older sister Anne who, tall, cool and blonde, stands apart from her siblings both because she is adopted and because she's an actress, which means they all talk down to her quite a lot. Nonetheless, life is idyllic as they have fun in their rambling Norfolk estate and London townhouse with beloved cats in both homes. Initially, there seems to be some tension because Anne seems to be Sir Alexander's favourite--she reads Keats to him in the evenings to help him relax. As for the mother, she's not all there and spends much of her time gardening without much interest in her family.

The summer of '39 isn't just any summer, however, and before long, luscious balls and champagne-filled parties are replaced by something entirely different--something a lot more sinister. After a birthday lunch for Sir Alexander with Anne's boyfriend Lawrence, who works for the Foreign Office, as well as the malevolent Balcombe (played uncharacteristically by Jeremy Northam) and Hector (David Tennant). The discussion turns briefly to politics--more specifically the potential outbreak of war against Germany--and Hector makes it clear that he strongly disagrees with those who feel that a policy of appeasement towards Hitler would be the only way to avoid Britain being dragged into a war that would jeopardise their really quite comfortable lives.

This objection is duly noted by Balcombe and then a few days later, Hector is found dead--apparently a suicide. At this point, Anne, disturbed by Hector's death, starts getting suspicious and wants to find out more about what happened. Coincidentally, while rescuing a cat from one of the out-of-bounds outhouses at her estate, she finds a stack of old gramophone records among the boxes of documents. When she listens, though, it isn't a foxtrot that plays but a conversation between several men (one of whom is Balcombe) who are obviously referring to some kind of plot and also about whether a death (clearly Hector's) had been taken care of. Sir Alexander denies all knowledge of the disc, saying that it was Balcombe's and that he would make sure all of Balcombe's things were removed from their property and that he wouldn't let Balcombe trouble her again.

The more Anne investigates, more shocking her discoveries become. Strange things start happening to her too--a baby (Oliver) supposedly under her care disappears and then shows up a mile away in his buggy, but is Anne going mad or are they really out to get her? Her position as an adopted child further tests her trust in her family who seem more removed from her than ever. As preparations for war go ahead--pets are put down and then burned en masse on large, Holocaust-like bonfires, giant, silver barrage balloons are inflated and slip past over the parkland like invading robots, children are evacuated--both the country as a whole and Anne are pushed to breaking point as they try to do the right thing. Whatever that may be.

The "what if?" topic of the film is a familiar one but one not often taught in school history classes. What if TPTB in Britain had given in to some of Hitler's demands to avoid war in this country--at any cost? My GCSE history course focused on World War One, Germany and Russia up until 1939 and then the Korean War and Cold War--everything but the Second World War. Poliakoff, along with Romola Garai and Bill Nighy, was also present at the screening to answer questions, and he made it clear that this topic is also dear to him. He mentioned several times that his Jewish family's life would have been very different if Britain had given in to Hitler and what a close-run thing it was--the Holocaust imagery throughout the film was very much a conscious decision.

There weren't many audience questions for Garai and Nighy, which is a shame as they both did a really great job in the film and I would have been interested to hear more from them (not that I had any inspired questions myself). Nighy's character manages to be loving and utterly devoted to his family--and especially to Anne--and yet throughout, exuded an eeriness, which I never really shook off. Anne, meanwhile, is tall and blonde, apparently fragile yet tough deep down--the perfect Hitchcockian heroine, as one audience member said. I enjoyed the character's ambiguity--not knowing until a few minutes from the end whether there was a big conspiracy against her. As for working with Poliakoff, someone asked Garai whether the script for the film was set in stone or whether she could make suggestions or improvisations. Constantly stressing her "inexperience," Garai explained that you couldn't change anything in the script because it all fitted together perfectly as it was and Poliakoff had a response ready for every proposed change. Both she and Nighy gained a lot from the four weeks of rehearsals, more common in theatrical productions than in films.

All in all, the film got a big thumbs up from me: with a gripping plot, great acting and interesting historical themes, you can't really go wrong. At least not with that cast and that director. In fact, the only problem was that we were told at the beginning of the Q&A not to take photos because it was distracting. I took a sneaky one anyway with my iPhone when the questions had finished (and when I would no longer distract them), but it didn't come out very well.


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