Back in 1939, there was an incident with the aristocratic British Keyes family that now they prefer to forget. Two survivors of that era are the brothers Walter (Christopher Lee) and Oliver (Corin Redgrave) - though the latter was just a baby at the time - and today their grand-nephew Michael (Toby Regbo) has arrived to interview them to uncover the truth about what exactly happened then, as the country was turning towards war with Nazi Germany. It all centered around the brothers' cousin Anne (Romola Garai), and what she discovered...
The consensus about the much-respected British dramatist Stephen Poliakoff and his film Glorious 39 was that he had misstepped along the way, and the main bone of contention was that framing device, particularly the manner it brought matters to a close. Before you reached that, however, there were other problems that many audiences were quite happy to accept otherwise, and most of them concentrated on the rather precious manner in which the aristocrats were depicted, as if you were watching a Sunday night prestige affair on the BBC instead of a conspiracy thriller: this lot with their cut glass accents verged on parody.
Yet stick with it and Poliakoff began to take them down a peg or two, and it all brought out the shame of the United Kingdom's upper classes in that period drawing up to the Second World War. That being the appeasement movement among them, who were less concerned with pacifism and more wrapped up in defeatism and their strong links to the individuals who were warmongering on the other side of the Channel. This was the basis for the thriller aspect, as Anne, who lives with the Keyes family in the home counties estate that is their home, latches onto the sudden suicide of a member of Parliament (David Tennant) who had been attending a party there recently.
As she grows more suspicious, her fears turn to paranoia, but the question is how justified is Anne to suspect the worst of those around her - not simply that they are lying to her, but that they are involved with some pretty nasty crimes? Filling out the cast was an army of respected thesps in itself, of many generations of British stage and screen, with Bill Nighy all warm paternalism as the father, Julie Christie showing up as the sinister Auntie, Jenny Agutter as Mama who gets nothing significant to do until the movie is almost over, Hugh Bonneville as the co-star Anne is working with on a film and is dragged into her worries, and Juno Temple as the sister, reasonable on the surface but actually hiding unsettling motives.
As just about everyone is here, and it's up to Anne to work out who she can trust, a pressing question when the net is closing in around her. With a collection of accoutrements including some cats to be put down, a vintage car for escaping in, and most importantly the gramophone record which holds the proof that there is much scheming in one area of the powers that be which they would rather not be revealed (er, so they recorded it?), the setting and details were neatly thought out, somewhat more corrosive in its views of the classes than your usual heritage cinema that it might have appeared to be from the opening half hour. Poliakoff worked up a head of steam of suspense as Anne is victimised into a breakdown, but retains her fighting spirit - her outburst of well-deployed swearing in such menacingly genteel company is something to savour. But that ending, quaint as it was, did not damage the preceeding two hours enough to deny that while not perfect, there was some good stuff here. Music by Adrian Johnston.