There’s a strange phenomenon that is a sad combination of naivetÃ© and nostalgia. I see it often on social media. Let’s call it the Midnight in Paris effect, and just as in that film, if you could go back in time, your idolization of that time period would disappear pretty quickly.
But! “In the 1940s, women had class (read: wore dresses) and it was great.” Right. Okay. But what about Hitler?! What about having to go back to being housewives once all the men got back from WWII? Don’t even get me started.
On the surface Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39 may appear to support all these naive beliefs about the WWII period. (It is definitely a “fashion” movie). However, after looking a little deeper, it shows the fear of the time, not only on a global level, but on a personal level as well. The film’s protagonist is a pretty, rich, white girl, Ann (Romola Garai), but like in any good thriller, she’s eventually stripped of her privileges.
Ann has her faults. It’s refreshing to have a female protagonist who is so human. She has a lover who she isn’t necessarily in love with! She has a career! Those things alone make me want to hug her and after the hell she goes through, I want to hug her even more.
The thing is, right from the start, Ann is abused. It’s not the physical kind, or even so obviously the verbal kind. It’s a psychological slight of hand. Ann is constantly being debased by her family members, but especially her father and brother (played by Bill Nighy and Eddie Redmayne, respectively). The now popular phrase of “derailing” is an experience has existed for millennia. Ann is a victim of derailing and she shows us just how damaging it can be.
Ann is the eldest, adopted daughter of British politician in this time of appeasing Hitler. Tension runs high in Parliament and at home. Ann becomes an amateur Nancy Drew of sorts, when she discovers some mislabeled vinyl records in what is supposed to be her father’s writing shed. Instead of foxtrots, they’re recordings of “boring political meetings.”
Ann’s friend, a young MP played by David Tenant, “commits suicide,” prompting her to work harder and harder to unravel the mystery. Her family works harder and harder to derail her. Ann is an actress, and having a flair for the dramatic, she is never taken seriously. When she tells her brother she wants to quit acting and help the war effort, she’s told not to because her acting “brings so much joy.” At a picnic, she is left in charge of her infant cousin and he “goes missing” after she falls asleep. Her credibility is null.
As she sleuths, she finds out how aggressive the appeasers can be, especially when her coworker and lover both end up dead. Meanwhile, her brother has found out that her birth parents were Roma or gypsies. As in, if Hitler takes Britain, you’re toast.
The film culminates (very slowly, I might add. It has an epic length of 129 minutes) with Ann, in effect, being imprisoned by her family. All of her sleuthing has interfered with the appeasers underground conspiracy, which her father and brother are a part of. Ann is locked in her room and drugged by a menacing house servant. Ann eventually escapes and in a flash forward, we see that she went on to be a mother and grandmother.
I’ve heard from others about what a shame it is that Ann seems so naive and stupid. I contend that she’s neither of these things; she’s simply caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy. She’s been told that she’s just silly, dramatic actress. We see that she isn’t stupid but that she’s exactly right about the goings-on. When she decides to pursue her sleuthing even after the suspicious materials have been removed from the “writing shed,” she has conviction, curiosity and she follows what she thinks is right. She’s developed her own sense of moral rightness and she has an opinion. However, there’s not thing scarier than a woman with an opinion, so her father and brother make all attempts to shut her down, eventually doing so by force.
The real travesty here is the derailing, which still runs rampant and is painful as ever. The ultimate take-away of any period piece is to show us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. Glorious 39 does just that.