Dawn of the Dead: The Dark Shadow of History Has Always Loomed over Stephen Poliakoff's Dramas. but Glorious 39, Set on the Eve of War, Is Bleaker Than Ever
Herman, David, New Statesman (1996)
From the very first moments of Glorious 39, you know that it's a Stephen Poliakoff film. It's partly the familiar music: he has worked with the composer Adrian Johnston for more than a decade, so his best-known films have a very distinctive soundscape. It's also the opening images: men in dark suits have been digging and there is a strange shape lying on the ground, wrapped in a sheet. Is it a body? Poliakoff's best work is full of such images--mysterious and unsettling. Then we meet two strange old men, played by Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave. They know something about the disappearance of a young girl, back in 1939. The mystery thus established, the film moves between past and present.
It's all very English, with country churches, balls and characters in Regency costume. And yet, in the middle of this picture of England, we later see what one character calls a "vision of hell". We are definitely in Poliakoff's world.
Poliakoff's films are full of clues, secrets and suspense. They draw us in, ensuring that we want to know what happens next. But they also contain moments of haunting stillness: extraordinary images, such as a little boy dressed as a clown on the stairs, or a father posing in a mysterious garden, which recur throughout Perfect Strangers, for example. Glorious 39 has several such moments, happening just as the suspense begins to mount. When the heroine, Anne Keyes (Romola Garai), returns to the grand country house, she looks into a room and sees a number of beautiful young women asleep. Later, as she is trying to get away, we see a great pile of animals burning on a bonfire on a London common. Finally, at the climax of the film, the other characters stand completely still. Only the heroine moves. All his films have this curious push-me, pull-you quality. They manage to be dreamlike and visceral at the same time.
The same is true of the world Poliakoff creates. It is full of people and places that do not change, but around whom the world changes terribly fast. Shooting the Past, for instance, is set in a photo archive, which we are told is "an exceptionally magical place". In Glorious 39, the heroine's family lives in an old country house. "I'm glad to see some things don't change," says Aunt Elizabeth (Julie Christie). But Britain is hurtling towards war, and everything is in flux.
Change is always sudden and catastrophic in Poliakoff's films. In Shooting the Past, the narrator, Oswald Bates (Timothy Spall), tells us: "We had no idea what kind of day it was to be. No inkling that it was to be such a momentous, mind-shattering sort of day." Later, he is looking at photos of ordinary people: "I just have to say one thing to make these pictures absolutely electrifying. I just have to say, these people, some of these people, are about to be hit by the most terrible change. Their whole lives turned upside down. And they have no idea."
Towards the end of The Lost Prince, Queen Mary (Miranda Richardson) mourns the death of her son, Prince John, but also the death of the old order that the First World War has destroyed. "Everything's changed so utterly," she says. In A Real Summer, the debutante Geral-dine remembers a great ball that was held in London in 1939. "Everybody's life changed after thatball," she says. "Forever."
The other tension in Poliakoff's films is between his sense of Englishness and something much more European. He started out in the 1970s writing stage and television plays about contemporary England, often set in bleak, desolate cityscapes. His breakthrough drama was 1980's Caught on a Train, which follows a young Englishman's rail journey across Europe. The film has all Poliakoff's signature preoccupations of the period: drunken football supporters, city centres emptied of people at night and unpleasant railway stations. But then the young man meets an elderly Viennese woman called Frau Messner (played by Peggy Ashcroft), who starts talking about her youth after the Nazi Anschluss. …