With its wartime intrigue bubbling up in English country houses, a rich aristo clan disrupted by secrets and betrayal and the presence of Romola Garai, Glorious 39 carries more than a faint whiff of Atonement about it.
But it reveals itself to be something darker, more sinister, helped in no small part by a central performance from Garai that’s terrific in its tremulous virtuosity.
If she’s a blatantly emotive actress who can divide audiences (as she did in Atonement), here that hearton- sleeve quality pays off in spades thanks to the melodramatic edge writer/director Stephen Poliakoff applies to his polemical thriller about Nazi appeasement in the corridors of power.
After directing a few quirky cine-oddities in the ’90s (Close My Eyes, Century), Poliakoff’s spent the last decade making topclass telly like The Lost Prince and Gideon’s Daughter, which helped launch Emily Blunt’s career.
And Glorious 39 does suffer from the sense that prime-time would have been its more natural home. Not that its visuals aren’t handsome, Poliakoff glossing over some of the film’s limitations with lavish period trappings.
But his greatest strengths lie in subtle character dynamics. Here, he hits his stride, depicting the machinations of the happy-onthe- surface Keyes family, whose secrets are gradually uncovered by adopted eldest daughter Anne, aka ‘Glorious’ (Garai).
Bill Nighy, Eddie Redmayne and Juno Temple (another Atonement link) are all superb as Anne’s beloved father and siblings, menacingly closing ranks as her prying impinges on their privileged lives. Meanwhile, Christopher Lee, David Tennant and Julie Christie queue up to thieve a scene or two.
Unfortunately, Poliakoff sabotages his own efforts with some seriously silly decision-making (one character’s kooky murder will spark sniggers rather than gasps). But it’s a testament to Garai’s performance that the more Glorious goes off the rails, the more she holds your attention.
Poliakoff’s conspiracy thriller about Hitler-pleasers and appalling aristos comes with all the bucolic loveliness you’d expect. But its biggest boost comes from Garai, whose fragile, hypnotic turn should make the actress a gong contender.