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Tuesday, 7 December 2010

An English costume drama-cum-thriller set among the relations between members of an upper-class family living through the tense days leading up to WWII is an unlikely place for suspense and deep messages, but that's what Glorious 39 (dir Stephen Poliakoff, 2009) delivers. It's Poliakoff's first feature-length film in 12 years. The 58-year-old director has also been involved in stage production and has worked on numerous TV dramas in recent years. There's plenty of the old noblesse oblige, stiff-upper-lip, maids-in-lace-aprons type of malarkey here but there's a lot more as well. In fact, it's a cracker of a film that deserves more acclaim than it has received in the media. It certainly didn't jump out at me from the shelves of my video store but I'm very glad I watched it.

Anne Keyes (Romola Garai) is gorgeous, glorious even. She's the adopted daughter of Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), a member of parliament who owns an enormous country estate as well as a comfortable house in London. She lives with her brother and sister, Celia and Ralph (Juno Temple and Eddie Redmayne), who are natural children that arrived after Anne. There are other children too but unfortunately the IMDb list ignores young Walter, a spooky character who looks a little like Pugsley in The Addams Family.

There's a fair amount of thrills and these add to the sense of impending danger that permeates the film, beginning with the death of a family friend, Hector Haldane MP (Doctor Who's David Tennant), apparently by suicide. Haldane is pro-war and wants to see Winston Churchill take over the government. The sinister Balcombe (Jeremy Northam) says nothing at the dinner party where these ideas are aired, but he's clearly watching. One day, Anne ventures into a barn where some government records are stored, and picks up a few recordings. Soon after, during a family picnic, she is alarmed when the baby carriage holding her baby brother disappears. Feeling responsible since the rest of the group had gone for a post-prandial walk, she is relieved to find the child at last. But her credibilty is compromised; noone else in the family believes her when she says the carriage just disappeared.

This sense of isolation from her loved ones escalates. She asks her fellow actor, Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville), to listen to the recordings, and he sends her a warning. Then he's found dead as well. Alarmingly, she hears Ralph's voice on one of the recordings, and so she feels there's noone in the family she can confide in. She trusts noone, not even her beloved father. Increasingly isolated, she eventually breaks down when she finds her lover, too, has been killed. Then she's locked up alone by her father.

The strange feeling of dissociation that grows around Anne is spooky but it's not unprecedented. In fact, it's a feeling that anyone can have if they feel as though they are being lied to and made to feel as though something is wrong with them, rather than there being a frank admission of guilt. There's no resolution to Anne's discomfort. As the lies compound around her, she retreats further into herself until she can only scream abuse at those who torment her. As if she were imagining the deaths. As if there were no tell-tale recordings. As if she were mad and they were really trying to help her. But it's not true: they are trying to isolate her from society in order to silence her. Finally, she breaks away forever.

It's an engrossing plot and the roles are uniformly well played, which suggests that the director (who also wrote the screenplay) has a strong vision for how the action should unfold. He uses a number of interesting camera angles and also effectively deploys set props such as lighting and makeup in order to heighten the feeling of danger Anne has. This is especially visible in the changing relationship between Anne and Celia.

This film is well worth watching.

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