4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
"Glorious 39" has the same classy intrigue as one of those period parlor room thrillers from the 40s and 50s that starred Sirs Lawrence Oliver, John Gielgud or Ralph Richardson. It takes its time revealing the inner layers that point to a dark conspiracy, but once the red herrings and insidious motives are revealed, "Glorious 39" speeds through a series of surprising scenes that will tear your heart out.
"Glorious 39" is set in the summer of 1939, only weeks before Great Britain entered the Second World War. The plot revolves around the aristocratic Keyes family, headed up by Alexander (a regal Bill Nighy), a member of the House of Commons. Among the family members living at their estate are eldest daughter Anne, an actress (Romola Garai), daughter Celia (Juno Temple), Ralph, a rising politician (Eddie Redmayne) and Alexander's wife, Maud (Jenny Agutter) who spends more time in her garden than with her family.
At a dinner party celebrating Alexander's birthday, Hector (feisty David Tennant), a friend of the family and a member of Parliament, voices his adamant opposition to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasing Nazi Germany, a view that's unpopular, particularly with Joseph Balcombe (boo hiss worthy Jeremy Northam), a mysterious member of the government who works for Britain's version of the Secret Service.
The following morning, while searching for her lost cat, Anne innocently enters a storage building that Alexander has deemed off limits to the family. The building supposedly contains Alexander's papers and speeches. Anne comes across several phonograph records that Alexander later admits belong to Balcombe. Anne plays one of the records. Although it's labeled "Foxtrot," instead of hearing music, she hears a recorded conversation. Out of curiosity Anne keeps two of the records.
A few weeks later the family receives the news that Hector has committed suicide. Anne wonders if Balcombe is responsible. She plays one of the records and is shocked to hear a distressed Hector pleading with Balcombe to leave his family alone. From that point on, it seems to Anne that everyone she confides in is in peril.
Although she's adopted, Anne is the most popular and beloved of the Keyes, but as seemingly unconnected factors begin to coalesce into a conspiracy, Anne becomes an outsider within her own family.
One of the more intriguing aspects of "Glorious 39" is that it reminds viewers that the majority of British politicians and citizens didn't want to go to war with Germany; there were many people, like Alexander, who'd fought in the First World War and wanted to avoid a repeat of its carnage even if it meant sacrificing Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Any movie with a cast that includes Sir Christopher Lee is automatically afforded watchable status. With more than 266 films to his credit (the most by any actor since 1948!), the 88-year old Lee is all-world, having played Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Rasputin, among others. How talented is he? He recently branched out, recording a heavy metal concept album! As a septuagenarian version of Ralph (Anne's cousin, who was a young teen in 1939), Lee is one of two characters that provide a bridge between the events in 1939 and what's happening in present day England.
Busy Bill Nighy is a modern day Lee, having distinguished himself in "Love Actually," and despite the octopus make up, he was excellent in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." He sustains the personality of refined, accomplished, laid back aristocrat who may or may not be privy to a scurrilous covert government plot.
Romola Grapi (one of the few actors in "Atonement" who didn't have to atone for being too mushy) is glorious as Anne, who starts the film as a carefree rising actress. As she uncovers more clues pointing to government chicanery she takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride, flawlessly conveying disbelief, fear, betrayal and anger. Grapi is at her best when Anne realizes she stands alone in her effort to untangle a web of lies and betrayal.
Add former sex symbol Julie Christie ("Dr. Zhivago," "Shampoo") and a quietly malevolent Jeremy Northam (who played a noble Thomas More in "The Tudors") to the mix and "Glorious 39" has a lot to live up to. Fortunately it does.
"Glorious 39's" extras include behind the scenes footage, a trailer and interview with the cast. There are 13, count 'em, 13 interviews with the actors, who discuss their characters, the twists in the plot and their mutual admiration for director Stephen Poliakoff, who you'll come to admire as well.
Speaking about Anne, Romola Grapi says, "She's the oldest child, but she's adopted. She's the special child, but here status changes as the story progresses." David Tennent offers a glib observation about the film, saying it "Mixes history with a bit of Hitchock." And it's nice that Jenny Agutter gets to say more in her interview than she does in her role as Anne's mum.
A superbly acted, tension-filled period piece, "Glorious '39" lives up to its name.