Stephen Poliakoff is a well-respected British play-wright and some-time film director, and the cast of Glorious 39 is filled with great British actors - from the young and talented Romola Garai and Eddie Redmayne, to stars Jeremy Northam, Julie Christie and Bill Nighy. How disappointing, then, to find his new World War Two political thriller to be poorly made, poorly acted, poorly written and patronising to boot.
The story is set in the weeks before England went to war with Germany - the glorious summer of 1939. The adopted daughter (Romola Garai) of a wealthy aristocratic family (Nighy, Agutter, Redmayne, Temple, Christie) discovers that the British government is hiding recordings of meetings in her family's rambling country estate. They give evidence that certain elements within the British establishment are so afraid of another war, and so convinced that they can't win it, that they are preparing to negotiate a secret surrender to Hitler before the war has even begun. (All true, as it happens). The movie is a thriller, wherein the daughter uncovers the who the voices are on the record, and tries to smuggle it out to people who can use it to bring down Chamberlain's government and bring Winston Churchill to power.
All this could've been the stuff of a superb thriller, in the manner of ENIGMA. But this film lacks context. We never see the politicos, the military and the aristos arguing over the future of Britain. The stakes are all rather academic, and explained in a very patronising manner by characters played by David Tennant and Hugh Bonneville. Stephen Poliakoff seems to be assuming that his audience won't know anything about World War Two. What we are left with is a melodrama centred on this rich family who motor around the countryside and attend nice parties. The siblings are vaguely sinister, and there is a spooky looking government man, but no real sense of tension. I spent much of the movie being annoyed at the heroine for taking her time. If you found the 1939 equivalent of the Watergate tapes, wouldn't you just jump in a car and take it straight to the opposition party? Why all the listening, carrying in handbags and re-listening? Why the comedy, Agatha Christie style bumping off of minor characters?
Still, for all that, the movie is vaguely interesting for the first hour. Where it really comes off the rails is in the final hour. The heroine finds out who is plotting against her and is captured. At that point, the performances and writing veer into B-movie melodrama. It's truly risible and basically unwatchable. We then squelch into a final act, where the enemies, so ardent in hunting her down, just let her slip off, and a final scene in which we're meant to acknowledge her as a true hero of the war. But she never actually does anything!
What a waste of talent.
GLORIOUS 39 played Toronto 2009 and opens in the UK on November 20th.