“It’s not always a good place to go, the past…” – Walter Page
Glorious 39 is a relatively new film directed by Stephen Poliakoff and was in theatres in the autumn of 2009 in Britain. This political thriller begins in present-day London with a school boy Michael asking his cousins Walter and Oliver Page about their family history, specifically a woman named Anne Keyes, and what happened to her. Walter, the only family member from that time still alive begins to haltingly recount the summer of 1939.
Anne (Romola Garai), her sister Celia (Juno Temple) and brother Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) have planned a summer birthday party for their father Sir Alexander (Bill Nighy), a member of Parliament and a World War I veteran. A close, upper class family, it becomes clear that Anne is politically uninformed and while not inconsiderate of those around her she is more interested in focusing on her film acting than on the real world. Life for Anne seems peaceful; her father has returned home from a business trip and appears to approve of her beau Lawrence (Charlie Cox), also a member of government. The laughter and cheer at the party dies however when Sir Alexander’s guest Joseph Balcombe (Jeremy Northam) disapproves of the heated sentiments of Anne’s friend Hector (David Tennant), a member of Parliament who wishes to speak outwardly to the nation about the relatively unpopular view that Britain needs to stand against Hitler, and the need for a new Prime Minister.
The next day upon finding that a record titled “Foxtrot” instead has recorded discussions of a meeting, Anne is told by her father that it is just government overflow being stored in their shed. Sir Alexander states that he is unaware of what is being stored but he will have them removed for the security of the family. Once again, life returns to normal for Anne. Two weeks later however, when it is reported that Hector has killed himself, Anne begins to question whether her father’s dinner guest Balcombe is responsible for her friend’s death.
When the records are removed from the shed by Balcombe, Anne steals several to listen to privately. The first is the recording of a phone call between someone and a frantic, screaming Hector. As Anne begins to realize the seriousness of what she has stumbled into she looks to her family and friends for help, unsure of what can be done, who is responsible, or who to trust.
Glorious 39 is a refreshing piece of cinema because of the topic alone. The appeasement movement is a dynamic subject to address as many people tend to “forget” that part of British history. After WWI people understandably did not want another war and it was these people who believed or hoped that if they gave Hitler what he wanted then he would leave Britain alone. To acknowledge that darker part of a not so distant past in conjunction with having it being told to a boy in the present brilliantly forces both the character of Walter and the audience to reflect on the awful things that good people can do, and their outcome.
Every performance in Glorious 39 is well done, but it is Romola Garai’s movie—she is simply stunning. She captures Anne’s transition from kind elder sister and actress, to terrified, confused, and lost young woman with astounding ease. Other notable performances include Bill Nighy as the ever British, ever trustworthy member of Parliament and father; Julie Christie as an older woman attempting to face the changing world; and Christopher Lee as the haunted older Walter, the only man who can properly tell the story.
The sets, costumes and colours used are period perfection. The setting is warm and comforting as well as desolate and alien as needed, and the bright, cheery dresses and suits of the upper class clash in an unsettling manner with the reality that all but one is trying to avoid.
Glorious 39 is not a happy film and at times can seem a little slow, but it is still quite simply, glorious. It is available on DVD in Canada.