Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Glorious 39   Stephen Poliakoff, UK, 2009

garai yellow

I’m a huge fan of Stephen Poliakoff, having watched and admired much of his recorded work, heard him in conversation live and even met him. He is a truly original and effective writer, in British television on a par with Nigel Kneale and Dennis Potter. Intelligent, committed and bursting with ideas that find form across film and theatre as well as the small screen, his fascination with past and present has driven almost all of his recent productions, which he has also directed. His trilogy of serial dramas – Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers and The Lost Prince – made for the BBC between 1999 and 2003, were brilliantly powerful and often very moving explorations of memory, secrecy and what those states mean to us, whilst his two films the decade before, Hidden City and Close My Eyes, were cooler yet equally riveting dissections of obsession and the facades that that builds.

The difficulty is with his most recent works for television, the two pairs of films that are Gideon’s Daughter and Friends and Crocodiles, and Joe’s Palace and Capturing Mary.

To varying but startling degrees, these have been worryingly thin, repetitive echoes of his older pieces with baffling hollows at their hearts. They have explored the same themes but to no real effect, and his distinctive directing style replaced substance rather than amplified it. Their treatment in the press was instructive. The BBC’s Radio Times magazine still splashed the first pair yet the coverage felt uncomfortable. The previewers’ language was awkward, the comments searching for the right words. They knew his stuff is supposed to be good, yet seemed unable or unwilling to say how and why. The very clear impression was of the emperor’s new clothes. By the time of the second pair, even this level of ambivalence was absent. The revelation some time later that Poliakoff has been subject to a unique dispensation whereby his scripts were always commissioned sight-unseen explained much.

With Glorious 39, therefore, the scales were in the balance.

Once again Poliakoff delves into a darker past, drawing on his actual and inherited roots. With Romola Garai as an adopted child, the threatened outsider, he seeks to tell a tale of conspiracy and secrecy against the loom of war amongst an aristocracy that is both comforter and betrayer. It’s a bold conceit, set on a broad and richly-detailed canvas. The problem, very sadly, is that the outcome is a failure.

The fundamental flaw is the plot. It fails to convince as a drama or even a yarn. It fails at that, but also fails to work as a 'Poliakoff' film. The tonality shifts so fast that neither Hitchcockian elements nor philosophical concerns convince. The basic revelation of the secrets contained within the Keyes household is sound, but even here things feel clunky when exposition is sought. Geographical confusion arises frequently. There are - for one whose writing can be so subtle – some astoundingly crude passages, with exposition not only dumped in front of the viewer but even duplicated, word for word, via flashbacks.

The film is weak in dialogue and the execution mostly fails to rescue the endeavour. Though a starry cast is present, closer examination reveals flaws in the performances that also hinder. Changes in actual and apparent motivation and loyalties feel unconvincing, yet many are predictable through poor playing.

Bill Nighy, occasionally impressive, seems increasingly to deliver the same performance, occasionally muting it, as here, but still not matching the type of character Poliakoff draws. His final revelation is unconvincing. Eddie Redmayne needs further experience or better direction. David Tennant is keen but absent for most of the film. Even Julie Christie, though impressive, is buoyed by the best lines and recalls Maggie Smith in Gosford Park.

The saving grace is that this film contains – and is very nearly saved by – a superb performance from Romola Garai. She glows in the film, showing real star quality but also real talent. She is called on to exhibit, and does so convincingly, a vast range of emotions and states and is completely convincing throughout. Fortunate enough to have the kind of plastic looks that are suited to both contemporary and historical portrayals of beauty, she is dressed exquisitely throughout and looks equisite. She is the centre of the film in every way and more than holds her own.

Unfortunately, even she struggles at times with the script, being for example party to an exchange with Hugh Bonneville which caused winces at its crassness of exposition. It also appears that Poliakoff was so enamoured of her that he neglected other cast members, to the film’s detriment.

At issue is that Poliakoff appears to have attempted a thriller, and one aimed specifically for a commercial – that is, American – market at that. Attending the film’s European premiere in London, one heard Poliakoff almost say as much. He stated that he wanted to return to films to make something that could only work as a film, and emphasised a goal of wide distribution and exhibition. For that, read a populist thriller. But Poliakoff does not 'do' thrillers. Indeed, his stated aim ten years ago was to slow down TV drama, and he can't come out of that, it seems, so quickly. Revealingly, at one point a suburban British clerical officer repeatedly asks someone to “fill out” a form, an Americanism that would have had no place in Britain then.

Would a bluntly commercial conspiracy thriller for the modern film market still allow Poliakoff to put forth his usual themes and uniquely paced mood? One might like to think so, but the two are – on this evidence – incompatible. The film comes over as The 39 Steps – note the titular similarity – but directed by Jean Cocteau.

Glorious 39 – the absent apostrophe is as unexplained as the fact of ‘Glorious’ being Garai’s character’s nickname – is a bold but disappointing work. Its key themes – the appeasement of Hitler and what that meant for England – are unquestionably valid as subjects, and, fully and properly handled, could have made a hugely satisfying character piece. A forced marriage with an ill-advised, poorly executed genre thriller, however, results in the derailing of both. But if Romola Garai doesn’t profit from this, it will be an even greater shame.

Romola Garai; image by arnique via flickr

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