September 18, 2009 / 7:40 PM / 9 years ago

Credibility gap sabotages thriller "Glorious 39"

TORONTO (Hollywood Reporter) - “Glorious 39” sends mixed signals. One minute it seems like a conspiracy thriller and the next one of those well-upholstered English melodramas about the privileged class pushing back against threats to their way of life. Either way, it’s a lot of hokum that relies on contrivance and chance to move its dubious plot forward.

“Glorious 39” could see box-office coin during a U.K. release slated for November, especially if it manages to stir up historical controversy over just how far the proponents of appeasement with Hitler, led by Tory PM Neville Chamberlain, actually were willing to go on the eve of World War II. A top-notch British cast could bring sales in other territories, but audience response is likely to be lukewarm at best. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film marks writer-director Stephen Poliakoff’s return to cinema after a 10-year absence, during which he helmed dramas for BBC television. He hasn’t much left the BBC world, though, as “Glorious 39” relies heavily on performances, costumes, lavish interiors and the bucolic countryside.

In 1939, the powerful Keyes family watches the gathering clouds of war with wary eyes. The father (Bill Nighy), a conservative MP, well remembers the carnage of the last war. His son (Eddie Redmayne), a government official, urges the womenfolk to continue their social activities while the men worry about war.

The film’s heroine, Anne (Romola Garai), is the eldest Keyes daughter, who happens to be adopted, a fact that becomes increasingly emphasized, especially by her brother, as the story progresses. Her career as an actress is on the verge of taking off even as she falls in love with a Foreign Office official (Charlie Cox).

At a dinner on the family estate, a hot-headed politician (David Tennant) spouts off about the appeasement policy, which draws cryptic comments and dark stares from a mysterious visitor (Jeremy Northam). Next thing you know, the politician is dead from “suicide.”

Then, as Anne chases down a cat in out-buildings on the estate where she never goes, she stumbles across recordings of secret meetings by political conspirators. A maid manages to break one record that captures the voice of the frantic, now deceased politician. But another record remains intact, which Anne shares with a fellow actor (Hugh Bonneville) and, whoops, now he’s dead from suicide, too.

Anne makes further headway uncovering betrayals and schemes, but ominous signposts of danger dot her path. A baby she is supposed to be tending gets whisked away by unseen hands. A threatening man in dark clothes follows her on a bicycle. A nasty little boy watches her intently. Soldiers arrest her without provocation.

Trouble is, these menacing signs begin too early, before Anne even logically knows anything about a conspiracy. Even more troubling is that just when Poliakoff has built tension to a certain pitch — albeit without complete credibility — he gets sidetracked with family affairs and Anne’s emotional outbursts.

Although she may be a flighty actress, Anne might at least possess the wisdom to realize that as deaths mount and suspicions widen, her acting might come in handy. Hysteria and angry diatribes against those who might harm her are hardly going to lessen the danger.

Garai is encouraged to play fluster and panic rather than sagacious calm. The actors portraying family members, including Julie Christie as an aunt, let their behavior grow more menacing toward Anne. By movie’s end, however, it’s not clear how real any of that menace is.

An awkward framing device, in which Anne’s story is related years later by the youngest family members, only increases the ambiguity. The third act is a definite dramatic fumble that never follows through on the menace implied.

The production is a handsome one. The story smartly stays out of 1939 London as much as possible so as not to put undue pressure on the budget. When necessary, London is represented with a handful of striking interiors. The cast all dresses its period best, while recordings of old songs get viewers in the mood.

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