You should listen to it again, Anne.
How to survive a thriller. Rule #1: Don’t get caught. Rule #2: If you come by a piece of sensitive or important information that is contained in a portable medium, never give it to someone else. Rule #3: If you need to talk to someone, never agree to meet at a later time. Rule #4: If you start to feel your mind slipping, don’t tell anyone. Rule #5: Trust no one. That should do the trick.
Anne (Romola Garai) violates all of these rules in Glorious 39 (2009), stupid girl. Anne is an actress and adopted daughter to Sir Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy). As war is about to (and eventually does) break out, things start going weird all over. Hector Haldane MP (David Tennant), a vocal proponent of a stronger line against Hitler and replacing Chamberlain, apparently commits suicide. An LP (out of many) is labelled as foxtrots, but is actually the recording of a meeting–which turns out to be a serious bloomer in the plot–is brought to the house by the mysterious Mr. Balcombe (Jeremy Northam). Anne conceals a couple of these LPs to listen to and finds out some terrible things. I am tempted to spoil the movie by relating it as it actually happens (filling in the missing pieces with the reveal-finale), but I shant.
Despite all kinds of bloomers in this movie, both in the shooting and the plot, I’m inclined to call it good. I think that this is entirely to do with my pro-British bias and should therefore be discounted, leaving you with the final analysis that this is ultimately a not-good movie. After listening to Arguably by Christopher Hitchens–absolutely worth a purchase as a collection of articles that span so many topics that absolutely anyone would find hundreds of pages to their interest–I have learned a good deal about what goes on in British people’s minds. Being an anglophile, I’d thought I knew a great deal, but so much of the early-to-mid 20th century contains the closeted skeletons that inform so much on their baby boomer generation that I was entirely unaware of. The two major skeletons are the fascists and the communists.
This film will be completely unintelligible to the person who thought that pre-war Britain was a hegemon of democracy-loving, stiff upper lips dedicated to truth, justice, and the American way. In fact, there was a struggle between certain of the fascist aristocracy and the communist aristocracy. I’m not entirely certain how cognizant of this entertaining irony Britains are since every instance of it that I see in film or commentary, those portrayed are so distressingly urgent and earnest that I fear the ideologies get higher billing than the cast of characters. Anyway, this film portrays the fascist part, or at least the anti-war part. I ask you, when you start killing people to keep the peace, are you sure the peace is your highest concern? Ironies abound.
Every time you have someone who believes in something, there is the danger that they will turn the idea into the value-in-itself. Example: I value money because it allows me to buy things, but over time, I begin to value money for its own sake. In moral terms, once you begin to believe in something–communism say because it is so unjust that a worker be poor while a capitalist is rich–you begin to think that this idea must be initiated at all costs–we must have communism, even if the workers are so ignorant of what is best for them. Once the first value is lost in the idea, so quickly it is corrupted into a violence against that value. Here, the evil of war blinds them from the evil of Hitler. Even when war begins, they become agents for Hitler (even if they don’t know it) and only allowing a greater war.
This is a movie review, isn’t it? Oh yes.
The director, sadly, falls victim to the cinematographic analogue to the moral one. The shots are beautiful so often, but then everything starts to take on a beautious-shot motif. Example: If two characters are talking to one another, having them both in frame makes the conversation engaging, but here, in a conversation (sometimes) only one character gets a medium shot (waist up) and then the other (also waist up). Both shots are vivid and colorful, but why? We shouldn’t be thinking about the shot, we should be listening to the conversation.
Then we get to our ending. What was that?(!) Yes, we know it’s her, you just told us in the most literal way you can think of–okay, second most literal. Why is he shocked? Why is this glorious actor (Christopher Lee) so comically shocked? Why is she here? You just gave us a pretty good psycho-political thriller, why are you “wrapping it up” in a pretty, but leopard-skinned (i.e. inappropriate) bow?
I say it was a pretty good psycho-political thriller, but only in the very detachedest way. In an artsy movie, like French or something, the key is to be so detached that virtually nothing will surprise you–you just watch like you’re a ghost in the park or a eunuch at an orgy. I was doing that in this movie–it was the vivid colors and dream-sequence beginning that was the cue–and things were working according to plan. Sometimes a character would say something almost like they weren’t actually following the action and then we’d move on to a landscape. Little fragments of plot were strung together, we went along with them, and the formalities of the genre were observed. Bang, zoom, “Oh, no, not him too!” Cornfield. “Don’t do it!” Woozy, woozy, woozy. Reveal!
But then it went two steps past that. We’ve got this device–meaningless when you look at it–where this story is told by Anne’s adopted cousins who are informing their first cousin twice removed about the family history–“What happened to [the lady in this old picture]?” So, at the end of the movie, we have to wrap that up. Mistake.
Up until this happens, everyone’s performance was pretty good. Garai, the lead, was very good all the way through. Nighy was also very good and didn’t jerk his head around like a fool, which was refreshing–check to see he doesn’t have Parkinson’s and that wasn’t a despicable thing to say. No? Excellent. Northam played the creepy fellow who spoke very little just fine.
No, the performances weren’t a problem, but the writing was. Some of it just didn’t make any sense. One piece I am absolutely certain was just a pure gaff. One character plays the LP thinking it’s music and he’s surprised that it isn’t and lets the thing play out for a bit without concern. Come to find out, he’s actually recorded on the thing saying something quite naughty and in such a way that he’s almost certain to have known he was being recorded. The only explanation, and it’s feeble but probably accurate, is that they’re all cool as cucumbers and played dumb. Later, Anne has put almost none of the pieces together (except to know something super cereal is going on) when she’s put under house arrest and drugged. Balcombe puts the pieces together for her with no apparent reason for his being there. Then, in the very next scene, the character that has incarcerated her acts as if Balcombe had never been and then reveals his reason for being a member of the plot. Wha?
I flatter myself that I am an accomplished plot-follower. One viewing is all I need. This plot was loose, very loose. And a thriller, as any marketer clearly knows, must be taut!