Stephen Poliakoff | 122 mins | TV (HD)* | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R
“This year’s Atonement,” proclaims the poster, and DVD cover, and probably much more of the marketing for Stephen Poliakoff’s first venture into the cinema for 12 years, in the process probably explaining why he’s made (or “how he found the funding to make”) the return-jump from exalted TV auteur to cinematic hopeful: the titular “39” means “1939”, the year World War II began. Throw in a plot that concerns the aristocracy and an ‘English rose’-type to stare thoughtfully open-mouthed into the distance on all the posters, and Poliakoff’s film is automatically lumped in the same ballpark as Joe Wright’s Ian McEwan adaptation. Only this one comes light on awards nominations.
I was going to add “light on star power” too, but whereas Atonement could only offer Keira Knightley and a still-rising James McAvoy, Glorious 39 offers a host of above-the-title names: trailing behind Atonement‘s own Romola Garai we find Bill Nighy, Julie Christie, David Tennant, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Northam and Christopher Lee, not to mention a host of other recognisable British faces. If the combined cult might of Mr.s Tennant and Lee wasn’t enough to make this a hit, nothing could be. Some quite critical reviews obviously didn’t help.
I, however, thought it was rather good. I can see what turned some people off though. It’s a thriller, but it moves leisurely, especially early on. It’s also quite elliptical at times, not so much requiring you to pay attention as put the pieces together yourself. Plus it lacks a grand finale in which the hero triumphs, or at least loses in dramatic style — it’s quieter than that. Yet I liked the ending, finding it triumphant in a whole other way. But I won’t go spoiling that here.
It’s very much a Poliakoff work, I think. Perhaps that catches some film critics unawares: as noted, he worked solely in TV for over a decade before this, albeit in an auteur mode, writing and directing his own TV movies and miniseries, and perhaps this means he passed them by. But then that’s just about managing expectations. It’s not a melodramatic epic love story like Atonement, nor is it a pacey wartime thriller like… no example comes readily to mind, actually. Can someone please make a pacey wartime thriller? Or tell me which I’ve missed/forgotten?
By taking its time it creates a mood of creeping terror and dread; of an oppressive conspiracy that our hero, who’s just a fairly ordinary girl, has no chance of overturning — if it’s even real, and if she can find details about it if it is. And, by extension, by taking its time it’s being A Bit Different, and that means you can never be sure where it’s going to go; never be sure who’s on the side of the angels and who of the devils; of who is reliable and what is really happening; of who will survive. What’s better in a thriller than not actually knowing what will come? There should be twists in this genre — genuine twists when possible, not a stock array of “small character played by famous actor turns out to be vitally important” or ” good guy is actually bad guy” or what have you — and Glorious 39, with its balanced uncertainty, pulls some of those off.
It’s also well written, prettily shot, and expertly performed by that array of quality performers. I don’t recall a weak link.
Ignore the critics, ignore the comparisons to Atonement, and give Glorious 39 a chance on its own terms. I very much liked it.
* I own Glorious 39 on DVD, but watched it on TV when it premiered because it was shown (and available on iPlayer) in HD. There is no UK Blu-ray of the film, but I believe one is available in America. Such a fate seems to have befallen several British films of late — Easy Virtue is another example that quickly comes to mind. ^