E1 Entertainment // 2009 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 7th, 2011
You can't always run from the past.
"Chamberlain! You could hold his head in the toilet and he'd still give you half of Europe." -- George Costanza, Seinfeld
Anne Keyes (Romola Garai, Atonement) is an English actress still living at home with her father (Bill Nighy, Love Actually), brother (Eddie Redmayne, The Good Shepherd), and sister (Juno Temple, Notes on a Scandal) during the late 1930s. She is in love with a young man named Lawrence (Charlie Cox, Stardust) and her life is generally a pleasant one. However, when close relative and well-known political figure Hector Haldane (David Tennant, Doctor Who) passes away, Anne suspects foul play. She begins an investigation which leads her to a series of increasingly dark, sinister secrets. As the evidence piles up, so does the level of danger. Will Anne discover the truth, or will evil forces prevent her from getting to the bottom of things?
I'm not really familiar with the work of British living legend Stephen Poliakoff, but he's very well-regarded playwright/screenwriter/director on the other side of the pond (most well-known for his esteemed made-for-television films). I'm relieved to note that most Poliakoff fans regard the theatrical feature Glorious 39 as something of a terrible misfire in the man's body of work. If this was meant to be representative of the sort of thing Poliakoff delivers up on a regular basis, I would have no choice but to conclude that an inordinate number of his fans are also fans of crack.
While watching Glorious 39, I couldn't help but think of Julian Fellowes' vastly more successful Downton Abbey, which also sets a series of fictional melodramas against the backdrop of historical fact (not to mention that both feature Hugh Bonneville in a key role). The latter is both sparkling entertainment and thought-provoking drama, while the former presents a story as pretentious and silly as The Da Vinci Code (minus the benefits of consistent direction and enjoyable supporting performances). Glorious 39 is not only a bad film, it's a bad film that seems intent on being an Important Film.
There are issues raised in this movie that deserve serious consideration. There are debates about the manner in which the British government handled itself in the days leading up to World War II, examinations of the social changes that took place in the days shortly after the war started and the controversial political ideas being tossed about during the Chamberlain years. The film wants us to take its explorations of these issues seriously even as it uses them as a springboard for one of the most unconvincingly preposterous pieces of historical fiction I've seen in recent years. One of the only persuasive moments in the film comes near the end, when the heroine starts roaring profanities at her enemies. In that moment, her rant seems an impassioned protest against the sheer absurdity and stupidity of the situation that she's in, though this is more the fault of the filmmakers than the characters in the movie. The closing shots of the film seem to be in a fierce competition of awfulness.
It must be admitted that actress Romola Garai does what she can with the material; doing her best to play each scene with conviction even as the movie gets increasingly nonsensical. It's a shame that even her impressive portrait of righteous fury late in the proceedings fails to help things much. Most of the supporting cast flounders, however. The usually-reliable Bill Nighy seems curiously reigned in; somehow robbed of his charisma. Christopher Lee (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) appears in framing sequences, presumably cast due to his ability to bring gravitas to even the most unconvincing of moments. Alas, he finally fails on that count. Charlie Cox is rather bland as Anne's lover, while Jeremy Northam (Emma) tips his hand with his overbearing work and reveals his character's evil intentions much too early. David Tennant is actually kind of terrific in his pair of scenes, but he vanishes all too quickly. Julie Christie is in the movie, but her role is so unmemorable that I'm surprised I actually remembered to mention it.
The 1080p/2.35:1 transfer is respectable enough, offering us a nice look at the film's lavish locations. At the very least, the filmmakers have done a solid job in terms of recreating the feel of the period and the film is rarely less than intriguing to look at. Poliakoff seems a little limited when it comes to visual flair (he mostly enjoys playing with the focus in slightly irritating ways), but that doesn't prevent him from constantly drawing attention to his direction. When he permits the film to look crisp and clear, it does, but there are quite a few moments of intentional softness (even flat-out blurriness). The audio is solid enough, with Adrian Johnston's insistent score coming through with strength and blending nicely with the dialogue. Sound design isn't as complex as one would expect for a period drama like this, but what's here is well-captured. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and some brief interviews with the cast and crew.
I suppose Glorious 39 isn't technically as awful as a more conventional bad film (say, the average Rob Schneider comedy). However, the fact that it seems so convinced of its greatness and importance serves to make its failures supremely irritating. A terrific cast goes to waste, intriguing issues are made irrelevant by the silly plot and a much-respected filmmaker makes a terrible first impression on yours truly.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R