Our rating: 3 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
I had been intrigued with this film since first news of the casting was released, and while it does have moments of sinister suspicion and drama, unfortunately Glorious 39 transforms from a first-rate thriller into a meandering story that never really fully explains itself.
Great Britain is relieved that temporarily, potential war with Germany has been evaded. Although Hitler is striving to take control of the surrounding European countries, England remains outside his influence. The local MP, however, Hector (David Tennant) believes the government is attempting to take steps toward reconciliation with Germany, something he believes would be perilous. He expresses his radical views at the birthday party of Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), a respected member of Parliament. His impassioned views catch the attention of aspiring actress Anne (Romola Garai), who is Sir Alexander's adopted daughter, while simultaneously drawing disapproval from the sinister Balcombe (Jeremy Northam), one of her father's associates. Nothing more is thought of it until Hector is found dead -- it is believed on the eve that war is announced with Germany that he has killed himself. Anne is not entirely convinced and becomes suspicious of Balcombe, especially when she discovers he has been using their outbuildings to store "classified information."
Amidst the junk are a collection of records that have private meetings recorded on them. Anne believes this must have something to do with Hector's death and so when Balcombe removes them from the house, keeps one or two back for her own interest. Knowing one of her fellow actors, Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville) is more informed in politics than she is, she lends him the record -- and he too winds up dead. Anne's subsequent discoveries and pursuit of the truth will endanger her life and involve the rest of her family (Julie Christie, Juno Temple, Eddie Redmayne) in dangers beyond her comprehension. The first three-fourths of the film are extraordinary, as the director builds a sense of tension and suspense that cause the audience to constantly question everyone -- every potential motivation, every glance, each instance of "suspicious" behavior that ranges from babies going missing on picnics to creepy shadows stretching along basement walls. But apart from Anne, none of the characters are fully defined and the script doesn't quite know where it's going or what to do with them all. It comes to a climactic pitch and then becomes morbid and absurd as it blathers through the putting-down of pets after the war is announced, winding up with us not being entirely sure what just happened. There's a strange sort of "hallucination" or entrapment that goes on toward the end that leaves the audience utterly confused and some of the plot points are never really explained.
It's a shame really because it squanders some of the finest talent England has to offer -- Romola is exquisite and turns out a perfectly nuanced performance devoid of any of her normally irritating ticks, but everyone else is under-used. Jeremy Northam and David Tennant are terrific -- but there's not enough of them and as such, their roles are best described as "cameos." Nighy is also good at being ambiguous and charming, and it is always a pleasure to see Julie Christie... who might be a little creepier as Anne's aunt than we expected. It would be a good movie with a different final twenty minutes -- some real revelations, a daring chase, anything to break the monotony. It does have a bit of a twist at the end but it's not hard to see it coming and most people won't be surprised. I think however what put me off it most is a gratuitous segment in which Anne agonizes over putting the family cats to sleep. It's bad enough as a cat-lover to have her sit there and try and figure out how to save them, while other weeping people take their pets into the vet's office -- but she goes "wandering off" and stumbles through a stable filled with dead animals .... horses sprawled out on the floor, cats and dogs tied up in sacks hanging from the ceiling, etc. We then get to watch along with her as the vets build giant fires and throw the carcasses onto them. It just seems out of place and doesn't really have much relevance to the plot. (If it's an indirect reference to the Holocaust, it's a bad one.)
There are several murders / implied suicides but only two of the after-effects are seen on screen; the camera briefly peers through clothing racks to find a body somewhat bloodied up. Another is found hanging upside-down. We hear about another man having committed suicide. Anne and her boyfriend Lawrence (Charlie Cox) make an appointment to "make love" with one another; they passionately kiss up and down one another, and the camera briefly shows his bare backside; they are interrupted. Anne daydreams about the almost encounter later, and we see part of it in flashback. Language is minimal with a handful of mild profanities and minor abuses of deity; it comes as a surprise therefore when a furious Anne goes into an f-word laden rant toward the end. As referenced above, more sensitive viewers will not like scenes implying the mass genocide of animals and the display of their carcasses. (It's pretty bad when the most emotion a film elicits from me is fear for the pets being put to sleep!)
I was disappointed it took such a dramatic turn
toward melodrama and a lack of common sense in the
last half hour because prior to then it had been
quite a suspenseful and terrifying film. It was
building toward something but fell flat. The ending
twists and turns could have been impacting with a
different approach and it needed some sort of
physical conflict. Having most of it be
psychological in the end does not fulfill the
audience's need to see good triumph over evil or
experience some kind of closure. It tries to be
ambiguous (is Anne dreaming up all of this in the
midst of a mental breakdown, or is this really
happening?) but then winds up in an absurd place
that still leaves us wondering what certain scenes
had to do with anything. I usually like Stephen
Poliakoff movies but this time around he could have
benefitted from a stronger screenplay.