Glorious 39 – Review

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In the days leading up to the Second World War, a young and idealistic MP Hector (David Tennant) is having dinner at the country pile of veteran MP Alexander (Bill Nighy).

An argument develops over how to deal with Hitler’s advance across eastern Europe. Hector belongs to the governing party, but he’s dead against the prime minister’s preference to appease the Fuhrer, to avoid entering a war he believes Britain can’t win.

Hector insists that the only moral thing to do is to take the fight to the Nazis, rather than allow them to do what they like, in return for leaving Britain alone.

But soon, Hector becomes one of many vocal opponents of the government to come to a violent and mysterious end.

Alexander’s eldest daughter Anne (Romola Garai) is an actress – but not the kind of vacant starlet we’re used to seeing in Hollywood. Nothing gets past her, and she discovers some recordings that her father’s Foreign Office friend Balcombe (Jeremy Northam) has been storing in their garage, which point to the conspiracy to silence the government’s critics coming rather close to home.

How can Anne investigate her suspicions? Who can she trust? Nothing will be the same again for the MP’s adopted daughter – who now feels more alienated from her family than ever before.


This film isn’t a true story, but the writer/director Stephen Poliakoff – returning to the big screen for the first time in a decade – says it’s very much based on stories he knows to be true. Without people like Hector, campaigning against the Nazi apologists, his Jewish ancestors would’ve been exterminated and he wouldn’t be here today, he stresses.

At a time when the latest inquiry into why we went to war against Saddam Hussein is just beginning – and with thousands of British troops still in Afghanistan – this film presents a passionate historical argument for intervention, without passing judgement on the modern conflicts.

Poliakoff presents us with a typically authentic, well researched period piece, exploring little-known areas of history, with luscious sets and costumes and some bristling dialogue.

The impending claustrophobia as the extent of the conspiracy dawns on Anne is gripping and the audience stays with her every step of the way.

As a young, beautiful outcast, she makes a perfect lynchpin for the story. In a strong central performance, Garai effectively leads the audience through – at least – the early stages of the film.

But while it begins well, cleverly unfolding at a measured pace, there comes a point where the conspiracy seems to get out of hand and Poliakoff literally loses the plot.

Its credibility fades, as the film starts to feel cinematically familiar and predictable and too many of those revealed to be the bad guys fit the big screen stereotypes we’ve seen far too many times before.

While some of the supporting characters – such as Anne’s acting friend Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville) – are effective drivers for the plot, others are less convincing and some seem little more than pointless additions to the cast.

Like Spielberg’s film centring on a similar period in history, Saving Private Ryan, Glorious 39 is also framed in a disappointingly twee modern-day story that adds little to the understanding of the message at its heart and the final revelation it leaves us with reduces, rather than strengthens the impact of the hard work of the cast and crew.