Whilst some 60+ years on, the British can look back upon the victory of 1945 with some pride, many modern Britons will not be aware of, or know little of, the unofficial British policy of appeasement towards Hitler and his rising Nazi regime from early 1930's up to and beyond the outbreak of war triggered by the invasion of Poland in 1939. One of the iconic moments of the appeasement policy was the film of Neville Chamberlain arriving back from the Munich Summit of 1938 with Hitler waving a piece of paper and declaring 'peace in our time', thus avoiding commiting the country to war over the annexation of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain wasn't the only one, however, and there were many within high society and the aristocracy who believed that appeasement with Hitler was the best course of action, sometimes for differing reasons. Some agreed with Hitler's regime, some that we could never win a war against the powerful Third Reich, while others could sense massive change and upheaval to their own lives with the outbreak of war and tried to do whatever they could to help avoid it and preserve the status quo. Not only that, but still at large within the public consciousness were the abiding and horrific memories of the last great conflict and a lack of appetite to repeat that whole experience with the huge casualties entailed.
Stephen Poliakoff's first film in ten years tries to address in part the policy of appeasement and the effect on one particular family. It's the glorious summer of 1939, still a month or so away from the Hitler's invasion of Poland, and the Keyes family are busy enjoying themselves with new careers and a busy social schedule. Head of the Keyes family is Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), an MP of some influence but not within the current cabinet. Keyes has three children: Anne (Romola Garai), Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) and Celia (Juno Temple). Anne, a rising actress, is the eldest but was also adopted by the Keyes during a period when they believed they couldn't have children. Ralph is the second eldest and about to enter service within the Foreign Office, whilst Celia as the youngest has pretty much nothing to do but become somewhat of a socialite. All three siblings have had a bit of an idyllic childhood within the vast space of the Keyes' Norfolk estate, but things are about to change...
The catalyst for this change is a birthday party for Keyes Senior, arranged by the children but attended by Anne's boyfriend Lawrence (Charlie Cox), who also works at the Foreign Office, and his young rising MP friend Hector Haldane (David Tennant). During the party, the pretty vocal Haldane rants about the treachery of appeasement and the need to ensure the leadership of Government changes to allow Winston Churchill to confront Hitler on the international stage. This rant appears to cause a little disquiet with one of Keyes guests, the rather silent and mysterious Mr Balcombe (Jeremey Northam). Within days of the party, Haldane is dead with a suspicion of suicide hanging over him (forgive the pun...) but Anne makes a couple of discoveries that lead her to think that there is much more to his death than this. As she starts to put the pieces together, she finds that her family may know much more than they're letting on and that anyone who helps her may meet a grisly end.
**NOTE** This is a US import at this stage, no domestic release details known at this time.
This is a BBC film (in conjunction with others and Lottery funded) and one of the things that the BBC are renowned for is its period dramas, so this looks very good indeed with a sharp picture and immense attention to detail. The only thing that confuses me a little is the inclusion of spitfires on both the artwork and within the menu titles as the spitfire doesn't make a single appearance during the film.
Interviews - interview with all of the main cast plus some of the crew that you can play individually or altogether. There's about 50 minutes of it altogether.
Brief behind the scenes footage showing Poliakoff and his crew in action...
As someone interested in this era of history, I already know a fair bit about the lack of action taken during the 1930's by both the British and French governments against the annexation of various countries by Hitler, including the rumours surrounding various banking families and newspapers. What I have never seen until now is a work of fiction that looks to explore this topic, albeit essentially centred around one family and the effects upon it.Glorious 39 is certainly a slow building thriller of sorts, full of intrigue in a rather Hitchcockian way but not a fast paced one full of action or car chases. Instead, you slowly find the tension ratcheting up, initially through rather banal and sometimes surreal incidents before we reach the pinnacle with kidnap and murder - not necessarily in that order. There are clues throughout the piece that hint at the various motivations and attitudes of various characters, pulled together slowly by the fiercely independent Anne, who has clearly been left out in the cold.
The cast is rather fantastic as well with Romola Garei excellent in the lead role and the various directions she needs to travel along the storyline. Bill Nighy gives a rather impressive albeit understated performance, the viewer unsure for most of the time just where this character stands in the grand scheme of things, David Tennant is extremely passionate and superb in his rather short lived role whilst Eddie Redmayne's performance has an underlying menace that juxtaposes with Jeremy Northam's understated but overarching air of intimidation. Juno Temple is rather good in her role as someone who knows a little but not enough to oversome her confusion at what is occurring around her, whilst Jenny Agutter as the mother figure barely utters more than a dozen words in the entire film. Very good supporting roles from Christopher Lee and Julie Christie as well, the latter a key figure to a large degree.
If you ignore the benefit of hindsight that we have from the post-World War II experience and the knowledge of the real horrors exposed by the threat of the Nazi regime, then you could very much sympathise with the attitudes of various sections of the British population and maybe view Chamberlain's actions in a slightly different light. Certainly he wouldn't have been able to follow the lines he did without the backing of influential characters and families. It is clear that at the time Britain was severely lagging behind Germany in the arms race so the view that Britian couldn't win a war was a justifiable view. If you ignore the sympathy with Nazi ideology, which this film doesn't touch on at all, and focus more on the fresh and horrific memories of the Great War, with Bill Nighy's character serving within the British Army during this conflict, then you can understand the reasoning behind trying to avoid its repetition. Of course, with hindsight we can say that we really had no choice and that the Second World War was more global than the sheer horror of the static, entrenched earlier war. The implication that the Intelligence Services actively followed the appeasement line and engaged in murdering anyone who knew about it is stretching things a little but works within the confines of this film quite well, with the family striving to protect one of its own.
Whilst the ending doesn't quite feel right, overall this is a rather good film that deserves to find the right audience. I'm not really knowledgeable on Poliakoff's previous work, but this would sit quite nicely alongside a number of English period peices, but certainly fans of Atonement may well apreciate this. As a study of appeasement, it appears that those who were afraid of the changes that war would bring were actually right, but who is to say if the changes were good or bad. Certainly the British would be in hock to the US through the lend-lease loan of $4.33 billion until 2006 (paying off nearly double that amount) and post-war colonial indepence would fragment and see the collapse of the British Empire with Britian sliding down the scale of international influence, overtaken by both the USA and Russia as the major superpowers.
Was it all worth it in the end? I think so as the Britain still has massive influence in the world despite the appearance that we're punching above our weight at times...