Glorious 39, London Film Festival

3.00

An unhappy and inglorious time

Stephen Poliakoff's Glorious 39 (a British premiere at the London Film Festival) is a far more subversive film than its Brideshead Revisited-style patina of nostalgia first suggests. In spite of all the lovingly filmed footage of aristocratic types enjoying country house living in late 30s England, the mood here is closer to that of The Aerodrome, Rex Warner's allegorical novel about fascism in England, than it is to Evelyn Waugh.

Driven by a tremendous performance from Romola Garai that rekindles memories of the heroines in peril that Ingrid Bergman used to play with such gumption in Hitchcock thrillers, the film works well enough as a ripping yarn. It also has some provocative points to make about the duplicity and ruthlessness of the section of upper-class English society desperate to appease Hitler, if only to preserve its own way of life at all costs.

Poliakoff's screenplay is wildly (and seemingly deliberately) over-determined. The lurches in tone make the film arresting and unsettling. Gothic elements are thrown in alongside gently comedic scenes. Occasionally, you have the sense that the writer-director isn't entirely sure what movie he is making: an intimate psychological drama about a traumatised young woman or a drama about corruption at the heart of the British establishment. As in Atonement, in which Garai also starred, the switches between the Second World War era and the present day are jarring.

The main setting is England in the summer of 1939. In spite of the prospect of war, the English aristocracy is still enjoying a balmy existence. The society balls and country house parties continue as before. Young movie actress Anne Keyes (Garai) is the adopted daughter of genial, Keats-loving toff Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy). After serving in the First World War, Alexander, now a prominent politician, is terrified of Britain being plunged back into war. He seemingly tries to keep Anne, her brother Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) and sister Celia (Juno Temple) safe from the ominous rumblings of the outside world. When Anne discovers secret Government documents and recordings stored in an outbuilding on the family estate, she realises that a violent conspiracy is afoot. The man behind it is the dapper but very sinister Balcombe (Jeremy Northam in a role close to the one he played in Michael Apted's Second World War thriller Enigma). This conspiracy involves an entire social and political class.

Poliakoff strikes such a brisk tempo that you don't have time to dwell on the inconsistencies in the plotting. There are bravura sequences. For example, in one scene, Anne falls asleep during a picnic and wakes up to discover the baby she is meant to have been tending has vanished. We see her running in panic through the woods, baffled at what has happened and beginning to question her own sanity. The scene captures brilliantly her fear and mounting paranoia. As the film progresses, all her old certainties are called into question. She begins to ask how far she can trust even those closest to her. Garai captures brilliantly her character's mix of defiance, incomprehension and, eventually, terror.

Given the country house settings and sumptuous period detail, the war itself seems very far away. We see no swastikas and for once, there is no archive footage of Hitler ranting. Instead, Poliakoff hints at the upheavals to come by showing the fate of the animals. In surreal scenes, there is a mini-pogrom against the nation's pets. Families caught up in the evacuation abandon their dogs and cats to be "put down" by the vets. We see carcasses being loaded on to bonfires.

Poliakoff has said that many elements of Glorious 39 are "true". The secret service really was used by Government, pre-Churchill, to suppress all opposition to its policy of appeasement. He shows the State behaving toward its own citizens with a viciousness that puts even the Stasi to shame. Opponents are blackmailed, intimidated, driven to suicide and even murdered. Even as this goes on, the aristocrats still behave as if they're characters in a PG Wodehouse comedy of manners.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine