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Case Number 20765

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Glorious 39

E1 Entertainment // 2009 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // February 23rd, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Jim Thomas hopes he is as glorious at 49 as he was at 39. That's not saying much, mind you.

Editor's Note

Our review of Glorious 39 (Blu-Ray), published February 7th, 2011, is also available.

The Charge

In a time of war, trust is everything.

Opening Statement

In September of 1938, the Munich Pact formalized the annexation of the Sudetenland, which had been part of Czechoslovakia, by Nazi Germany. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a driving force behind the agreement, returned to England claiming that the accord secured "peace for our time." The accord is one of the more infamous examples of the policy of appeasement that allowed Hitler to go unchecked for so long. The thing is, many people don't really appreciate the social forces that gave rise to those policies. The First World War took a terrible toll on the national psyche, particularly the aristocracy, who firmly believed that England could not defeat Germany a second time, and that the ensuing defeat would destroy their way of life. Even after the war began, there were those who felt that the prudent course of action was to sue for peace, quickly and at any price. Glorious 39, written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, uses those beliefs as the basis for a political thriller.

After watching Glorious 39, brought to us by E1, let's just say that it will take a hell of a lot more than the Sudetenland to appease this court.

Facts of the Case

It's the summer of 1939, weeks before the beginning of World War II. The British government's policy of appeasement appears to be keeping Hitler in check. Anne Page (Romola Garai, As You Like It), a successful actress, is the adopted daughter of Alexander Page (Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead), a well-respected member of the House of Commons and a prominent voice in the appeasement movement. Anne, along with her younger sister Celia (Juno Temple, Atonement) and Ralph (Eddie Redmayne, The Good Shepherd) throw a lavish birthday party for their father; in attendance are Anne's friend Hector (David Tennant, Doctor Who), a fellow Member of Parliament who vociferously opposes appeasement; her lover Lawrence (Charlie Cox, The Merchant of Venice); and an enigmatic government worker, Joseph Balcombe (Jeremy Northern, Gosford Park), who works with Alexander Page. A good time is had by all.

The next day, Anne finds the family cat in a storage building. Looking around, she finds a bunch of records (you remember, vinyl albums?). She listens to one and is horrified to hear Hector pleading with someone to leave him and his family alone. A couple of days later, Hector is dead of an apparent suicide. Fascinated by the records, Anne takes a few of them to the location of her latest film, asking her co-star Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville, Notting Hill) to listen to them. The next day, war breaks out; the next morning, Gilbert is found dead, an apparent suicide. Anne finds herself wrapped up in a web of intrigue that leads her closer and closer to home—and to a horrifying discovery.

The Evidence

The above description sets up a solid base for a period thriller with all manner of intrigue. Good performances and gorgeous, lush cinematography…you find yourself caught up in the proceedings. Then the bottom drops out. The progression works something like this:

• Around the 5-minute mark: "Dear Lord, Romola Garai is stunning."

• About the 20-minute mark: "She's an exceptional actor, too." (Seriously, she's being hailed in England as the next Kate Winslet.)

• Thirty minutes: "This is a stellar cast."

• One hour: "What are they doing in this piece of crap?"

• End Credits: "WTF?!?!?"

The film asks us to believe that those supporting appeasement are so staunch in their beliefs that they will kill those who might threaten that policy—even after war has already broken out. That's fine in and of itself; it's an interesting idea, with potential for dramatic irony, hypocrisy, and the like. However, the film runs off the rails by abandoning the political thriller aspect and veering sharply into psychological thriller, with an underlying premise that makes not one lick of sense. Then we get the final twist, in which it is revealed not only that Anne's father is part of the secret cabal intent on reconciling with Germany, but so is her entire family, and all they really want her to do is accept their love and join them. Even though they've killed, among others, her lover Lawrence. Right. When the dust settles, ain't nothin' but a family thang. The bottom line: the plot doesn't make a lick of sense. There's not much more one can say, really. (It's possible the plot might resonate better with an English audience, one more in tune with the history of the time—but quite frankly, I doubt it.)

The acting is strong, particularly in the first half to two thirds of the movie. Garai handles the shifting tones well, and Julie Christie adds just enough steel to her role as Anne's aunt to make both her and the audience uneasy. Bill Nighy is always watchable, but by the end of the movie, you're too busy trying to make sense of things to really appreciate it.

Technically, the disc is solid. Video is particularly strong, with lush, vibrant colors. Audio is a bit subdued, but clear; they make good use of the lower registers to build tension. There is an hour-long series of interviews will all of the main cast plus Poliakoff; heavily edited, the result is rather fragmentary, but you get a better sense of what Poliakoff was trying to do, and that the cast had a clear idea as well; for whatever reason, though, it simply did not translate to the screen. There's also a brief (2-3 minutes) behind-the-scenes shot of prep for a scene. Other than letting you see the kind of chaos that goes on just out of frame, it adds little.

Note: The title obviously refers to 1939. "Glorious" is Anne's nickname, used by her brother and sister.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Poliakoff brings together a fine cast—in addition to those mentioned above, you also have Julie Christie (Don't Look Now), Jenny Agutter (Logan's Run), Corin Redgrave (Shackleton), and yes, he's one of those Redgraves) and Christopher Lee (Horror of Dracula) in supporting roles. Poliakoff's reputation in England is such that actors of that caliber pretty much line up for roles, supporting or otherwise. That cast does a good job until the script reaches the point of no return—at some point, a script gets so bad that no amount of talent can salvage it. In addition, the film is simply a visual delight. The textures of the old, weathered buildings, the golden warmth of grain fields—they're almost hypnotic, helping the audience better appreciate the lifestyle that is supposedly at risk. That's what makes the movie so maddening—the talent is manifest both before and behind the camera, but because of the script, the movie lands with all the grace of a beached whale.

Closing Statement

One minute, you're watching a perfectly serviceable WWII intriguer, the next minute it's starting to stray into an odd gray area between Gaslight and some generic slasher movie as bodies turn up in the damnedest places and Anne no longer knows who to trust. Then at the end, when the pieces are laid out in front of you, cognitive dissonance makes an appearance and you start thinking that perhaps 2 + 2 does in fact equal blue. The framing device employed in the film, in which two old men tell the story to a younger relative, gets you interested in the story, but the conclusion is maddeningly frustrating in that nothing remotely resembling closure is provided. No closure, no sense of retribution, no sense of anything other than that the appeasement crowd was dead wrong, and if that was the purpose of the film, the court can only reply DUH!!

The Verdict

Guilty of war crimes.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 91
Extras: 75
Acting: 89
Story: 50
Judgment: 62

Perp Profile

Studio: E1 Entertainment
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Drama
• Foreign
• Historical
• Romance
• Thriller
• War

Distinguishing Marks

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