Glorious 39 should have been my favorite movie. In fact, it seemed as if it could have been made just for me: Romola Garai, David Tennant, and Bill Nighy all had leading roles, it took place on the eve of WWII, and it featured old English country estates.
It was released in the UK in 2009, but only just became available in the U.S. It had been saved at the top of my Netflix Queue for months and finally arrived in my mailbox last week. I was hoping for something, while not quite Hitchcockian, thrilling and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, I was deeply disappointed in Glorious 39. The plot alternated between the cliche and the implausible and featured at least four “plot twists” in a third act that dragged on for 20 minutes after the logical resolution. There was also a half-hearted attempt to invoke the trope of a creepy child appearing suddenly and making disquieting pronouncements which was thwarted by the child in question being a husky boy who seemed to be more of a Peeping Tom than a Cassandra.
The plot follows Anne, the adopted daughter of a well-respected politician. The action is set in the late summer of 1939, when Britons slowly turned from “peace in our time” to a declaration of war. On the night of her father’s birthday party (played by Bill Nighy), Anne’s friend Hector (the dreamy David Tennant with his native Scottish accent), a rising MP, makes a stirring speech about the necessity of war with Germany and his support of Winston Churchill. Anne’s father, Sir Alexander Keyes, had invited a shifty-eyed friend who responded shiftily-eyed to this outburst. Unsurprisingly, Hector turns up dead a few scenes later, supposedly by suicide. Which was very disappointing, because Tennant in period clothes and an accent really could have saved the movie. I thought that Charlie Cox (best known from Stardust), as Anne’s boyfriend, would satisfy my need for a dashing leading man, but a shot of his hairy butt quashed that hope.
The plot then follows Anne as she tries to understand why Hector killed himself. She finds a collection of vinyls in her father’s office and discovers that they do not contain the foxtrots they are labeled as, but instead recordings of government conversations. Imagine our surprise when the shifty-eyed friend’s voice turns up on the recordings! Who would have thunk it, the dinner guest who nobody knew is deeply involved in a government conspiracy to prevent a war! And that he is so dedicated to his cause that he will drive any who come up against him to suicide. We know this because one of the times Anne is listening to the records, she puts the pin down at the exact moment when Hector’s desperate voice can be heard saying, “Stop calling me with this incriminating information about my personal life, which the audience should assume means information proving I’m gay (because that’s what it always is in these sorts of movies)! I swear, I’ll kill myself if you don’t.” Obviously, this is an exaggeration of the actual dialogue, but the true text featured only slightly more subtlety.
After Hector’s death, there are several more suspicious suicides by those who might “know too much.” The movie really took a turn for the worse when Anne arranges to give the McGuffin to Charlie Cox’s character. This scene takes place in a vet’s office where pets are being put down in preparation of the difficulties of war. And the bodies are being kept in bags in office’s storage area and burned in bonfires. Not only did the setting make me very uncomfortable, it was such a heavy-handed allusion to the horrors of Nazism, that I managed to roll my eyes through my deep unease.
The movie could have ended there, but instead tacks on another 30 minutes of confusing melodrama. Affable characters become sociopaths and a poisoned glass of lemonade becomes a regular set feature. And it is in the portion that the film’s most troubling implications are played out. In the opening of the movie, it is mentioned that Anne is adopted, as the Keyes believed they were unable to conceive. After adopting Anne, they find that they are able to conceive and have more two children. For the majority of the film, this is not an issue in how the characters relate to each other. If anything, Anne is favored by every family member. But, in one of the creepy boy’s most absurd line, delivered at a party for the children of the ambassadors stuck in London, Anne is told that, “They don’t really love you.” Wait, what? It was such a total change in tone and so clearly not consistent with earlier scenes that I actually barked out a laugh.
As mentioned, the first two-thirds of the movie were passably enjoyable. I have loved Romola Garai since first seeing her in Vanity Fair. Since then, I’ve been following her career and have been impressed by her performances in I Capture the Castle and Emma (which I think is the best portrayal yet of my favorite Austen heroine). In Glorious 39, the character of Anne features the high spirits and gaiety that Garai excels at. And at the end of the film, even as events are becoming more and more absurd, Garai holds her own and delivers a monologue so perfectly dripping with rage and obscenities that would bring down the house in any other movie. Sadly, this is true for many of the great actors in this film. With a slightly better script, and slightly more believable characters, it could have been a truly pleasant movie, but as is, borders on the absurd.