Stephen Poliakoff discusses 'Glorious 39'
Stephen Poliakoff’s ‘Glorious 39’ is his first film for cinema since ‘Food of Love’ in 1997. Since then, the 56-year-old dramatist has concentrated on TV dramas such as ‘The Lost Prince’ and ‘Gideon’s Daughter’. His new film explores the sinister power of the appeasers as World War II began.
Romola Garai does a terrific job in the lead role. She’s in almost every scene.
‘I’d watched Romola’s career with great interest since “I Capture the Castle”, which she was lovely in. And she was great in “Atonement” too. To me, she was one of the obvious candidates for the role. I really didn’t want an American in the part and thankfully the film didn’t cost so much that I had to cast one.’
You’ve been away from cinema for over a decade. Did you know from the start that this would be for cinema?
‘Yes. I hadn’t meant to stay away for so long. But the television work did well and then we had success in America and one thing led to another. Then, especially when “The Lost Prince” won lots of Emmys in 2004, various people said, “Come and make another movie”. But nothing really grabbed me. I was searching for my own story that belonged in the cinema. Then I had the idea of this story and I’d always wanted to make a thriller in the classic sense – more like Hitchcock, more like “Rosemary's Baby”, a film of subtle suspense, building, building, rather than action or a regular climax every eight minutes.’
It’s a thriller about one family, but it reflects the wider reality of the appeasement movement in 1939.
‘I got very obsessed with this period, about what a close-run thing it was that I’m here, that all my family is here.
I thought: This story has never been told and it’s still in living memory. One of the cast, Christopher Lee, was there. He remembers it all. It was extraordinary to work with an actor who was a witness and who was even there watching the Nuremberg Trials. He was there in Nuremberg, although for reasons I still have to find out.’
You begin and end in modern London. Was that a way of stressing how close we are still to the events of 1939?
‘I thought it was very important. I think there’s a younger generation who have been taught about WW2 but for whom it’s still a shock to realise that it could have been different. There was a powerful collection of forces that were opposed to us facing up to fascism.
‘Those forces included the political elite, the royal family, most of the newspaper editors at the time and the civil service. A lot of the things in the film are true, such as the spying on the younger group of MPs around Churchill who were trying to bring down Neville Chamberlain. There were only about 20 of those MPs, so it was very easy to keep tabs on them all.’
Did you feel you were working against a popular myth of national unity?
‘Yes, although nothing should take away from the fact that if it hadn’t been for the efforts of many people, we wouldn’t be here. But I was surprised, and I think surprise is a good creative spur, especially if you can surprise an audience too.
‘I knew about appeasement, of course, but I didn’t realise until I started reading about it all in detail the extent to which people tried to suppress criticism of that policy and stop Churchill being an effective force. The intelligence services actually sponsored a magazine hilariously called Truth which regularly tore into the anti-appeasers.’
The spirit of Hitchcock hangs over the film. Were his films a big influence?
‘I love Hitchcock’s films. I watch them again and again. Everybody recognises he’s one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century, although most films get called Hitchcockian if they’re thrillers. I suppose it’s a great thing to think about him, but you can’t imitate. He had extreme cinematic intelligence. He planned everything so intricately, whereas I don’t. I give freedom to the actors. You just have to. Otherwise they’re just frozen. But, yes, I suppose he does haunt the film.’
Read our review of Glorious 39 here
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