Last year at just about this time, I introduced you to a film called Joyeux Noel. Based on fact, it revolved around a 1941 World War I Christmas truce, as seen through the eyes of French, German and Scottish soldiers.
One year later, I find myself writing about another wartime film, 2009’s Glorious 39. I was drawn to this British import by its extraordinary cast of personal favorites, including Julie Christie – Dr. Zhivago’s “Laura”, Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, and Bill Nighy, who first came to my attention as the woozy over-the-hill rocker in Love Actually.
Writer/director Stephen Poliakoff wrote Glorious 39 with Nighy in mind, having worked with him twice before. But it is Romala Garai, who is the star of the piece, as she is in nearly every frame.
Far from a perfect movie, the film is still worth watching for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it looks into the whys and wherefores of the appeasement movement, a subject that is often sidelined by other WWII films.
Promoted by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the late nineteen thirties, appeasement was championed by those who believed that by making certain concessions, or as historian Paul Kennedy put it, "satisfying grievances through rational negotiation and compromise”, Great Britain could avoid war with Nazi Germany.
Many of those who were directly involved in the movement had served in World War I - the memory of the horrors of war, still fresh in their collective minds. The thought of another war following so closely on its heels was unthinkable, and to be avoided at all costs. Those words – “at all costs” – found so-called “good” people doing very bad things for what they believed to be the greater good.
Judging them and their motives now, with the benefit of hindsight, gives the viewer a decided advantage. But at the time, they believed that there was no way Great Britain could outfight Germany. For them, (particularly those on the top financial and social tiers of society), appeasement was a viable alternative to almost certain defeat, and the demise of a lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.
Apparently historians are still debating the issue, but for me at least, this film, fictional though it may be, sheds some light on the times, temperament and transgressions of the people within the movement.
Taking its title from what has been described as the picture-perfect summer of 1939, Glorious 39 begins on a stunningly beautiful afternoon in mid-August. We are in the low lands of Norfolk, some 100 miles east London. Here,on the grounds of a grand country estate, where everything is as it has been for decades,seemingly undisturbed by the dark, foreboding under-current of the approaching ‘storm'.
We watch as a small cluster of young people play some sort of harmless war game amidst the stones and sheds that dot the property. And then, in one digi-second, we are transported to 2009, where, on a tony London street, a young boy by the name of Michael Walton (Toby Regbo) calls on Walter and Oliver Page, his two elderly cousins. It is the first time the brothers have seen the boy since he was a toddler, and they are obviously and humorously unraveled by his visit.
Michael explains that he has sought them out in order to solve a family mystery involving his great aunt, Anne Keyes (Romola Garai), a beautiful young actress who disappeared during the first days of World War II. The brothers, it seems, are the only surviving members of the family who are old enough to have been there when she disappeared.
Decidedly uncomfortable with the idea of revisiting those fateful days, Walter is hesitant. “It’s not always a good place to go, Michael – the past” he warns, but back we go, to Norfolk, and the great estate, where the youngsters we saw earlier, slightly older now in their late teens and early twenties, are showing some friends around the grounds of the Keyes family’s country estate.
We hear Walter’s voice over their laughter and mindless chatter, as he recalls the summer of thirty-nine.
WALTER: “It was the most glorious summer most people could remember for a very long time. The year before it seemed that the war with Germany had been averted a policy of appeasing Hitler and reasoning with him really had worked. And even now, it seemed it might still work.”
And now we are there. The sky is blue. The sun is warm. The view is to die for. In the center of the grounds we see a large tent dressed, ready and waiting in quiet anticipation. It is one of those willowy-romantic affairs that speaks of a privileged lifestyle. Inside its billowy walls, a formal table covered in crisp white linen is set with crystal stemware and fine china, as staff, family and invited guests await the arrival of Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy), the family patriarch. It is Sir Alexander’s birthday, and no expense has been spared, no napkin, plate or goblet left unturned for what will certainly be a night to remember.
We learn that Sir Alexander, a well-respected member of the House of Commons, has, over time, chosen to take a back seat in the political hierarchy for health reasons that are never explored. And yet we are told, he still wields considerable influence. Charming, noble - writer of books and giver of speeches, he is, by all accounts a man to be admired. A family man who loves and is loved by his wife and children. His eldest, Michael’s great aunt Anne, was adopted by Alexander and his wife Maud some twenty years before, believing that they were incapable of having children of their own. To their great surprise, a few months after Anne’s arrival, Maud became pregnant with a son they would name Ralph (Eddie Rayme), and later, a daughter named Celia (Juno Temple).
Now in her late teens, Celia looks up to her twenty-something older sister, whom she views as living a wildly romantic life both on and off the screen. Brother Ralph, who has followed his father into government service, is extremely fond of Anne as well, although there is an inescapable competitiveness his part. Yet and still, this is a loving, family, where Anne is treated as an equal. There are even times when it would appear that she holds a special place in her father’s heart.
As portrayed by Bill Nighy, Sir Alexander outwardly views the times with quiet reserve. While he is obviously against the war, he is far from its most vocal critic. Having fought and been wounded in WWI, his memories of the war are still fresh, and he tells Anne that he is fearful of what a second war – following so closely on the heels of the first, could mean to his country, his family, and life as they know it. Brother Ralph and sister Celia have similar leanings. Mother Maud says little, preferring to concentrate on the health of the estate’s garden.
Alexander’s sister, Elizabeth (Julie Christie), is a much stronger presence: a woman who enjoys the life afforded her by her station. Flighty and self-consumed, she is both a party-giver and goer, appearing to see the war as more of a nuisance than anything else.
While the Keyes family grounds the story, friends, lovers and colleagues drive it forward, establishing motives and revealing consequences. When Anne stumbles upon some potentially damaging recorded material on the grounds of the estate, the war becomes far more personal, as she is catapulted into the quiet fury of the times. Suddenly people she cares about are dying all around her, silenced by their own hand, or murdered for their political beliefs. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that no one is safe, and everyone is suspect. And while her family goes to extraordinary lengths to keep her free from harm, she cannot help by see her place and status within their ranks change, as her roots are questioned, and ties, unbound.
One can see how, in the light of impending war, the line between right and might can become blurred, and even those with no political connections, must figure out who to trust and who to fear. What to believe and what to question. What to do, and what not to do when everything you thought to be true, isn’t.
In Poliakoff’s ’s world, wolves gad about in sheep’s clothing, with few obvious villains aside from the menacing Joseph Balcombe (Jeremy Northham), a decidedly evil government operative who arrives with Alexander in time for the birthday dinner.
Beyond the high drama, and the answer―if there is one― to young Michael's question as to what became of his great aunt, there is the undeniable reality of how quickly things can change in time of war. Rules go out the window. Identities are challenged. Families are uprooted. Homes are abandoned. Animals are euthanized. Hearts are broken. Lives are shattered, and time is suspended. The only certainty―uncertainty.
Days after watching this motion picture, knowing what I know about Hitler, and the horror of the Holocaust, I find myself wondering what the world would be like today, had the misguided efforts of the appeasement movement gone unchecked.
Talk about scary stuff.
Glorious 39 is an unsettling and uneven movie: a bit too slow, too long and too wordy. Those of you who are fans of the quick cut and short scene will no doubt grow impatient with its deliberate pace. Billed as a thriller, it never set my heart racing. There were no great reveals. No red herrings. No amazing plot twists or Hitchcockian moments. I tell you this as I believe that you will realize early-on who has done what to whom. Yet, despite its girth, pace and probability, this thoughtful, handsomely cast film offers a unique perspective on one of history’s defining moments. For that reason alone, I believe that it is well worth your time and (im)patience.
Why now? Why not? This is, after all, a time when we sing of peace on earth and good will toward men. A time to reflect on our many blessings, not the least of which is the freedom we enjoy and the brave men and women who are putting their lives on the line to protect all that we hold dear.
There are a lot of wonderful, uplifting Christmas films out there. You’ll find many of them listed in previous posts. My favorite, Christmas in Connecticut, is a delightful bit of whimsy that the whole family can enjoy.
So what will it be? Glorious 39 or Christmas in Connecticut? They are about as different as different can be. Watch one, or both, when and where you like. As we used to say when I was a little girl, "It's a free country, and you can do as you please."