The story is told through the structure of a modern person relating the events of that time. A young relative comes to visit two elderly brothers (Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave). The boy wants to find out whatever happened to Anne. The brothers warn him that some family secrets should remain secret. Nevertheless, they agree to relate the story to him.
Anne is the oldest of three children. After her parents Sir Alexander Keyes and Maud (Bill Nighy and Jenny Agutter) adopted her, they then managed to conceive two more children. The younger brother Ralph is played by Eddie Redmayne (The Other Boleyn Girl) and the younger sister Celia is played by
(St. Trinians). When the movie opens in 1939 they are all young adults reliving their childhood by visiting a ruined castle where they used to go and tell stories. Anne was the most natural at this and ended up becoming an actress. Ralph has joined his father in service to the British government. Celia is a young society lady. (The modern day boy is Celia’s grandson.) Juno Temple
The two elderly brothers are cousins to these three siblings. The brother played by Christopher Lee in the present is about 12 years old in 1939 and the other brother is a baby. They are children of a younger sister of Sir Alexander. We only see her briefly. Another sister of Alexander’s figures more prominently. She is Aunt Elizabeth and she is played by Julie Christie.
Sir Alexander used to play a more prominent role in the government, but as he has gotten older he has taken a back seat to what has been going on with Prime Minister Chamberlain’s government trying to appease Hitler. He still has much respect and influence with many people, though.
Anne organizes a surprise birthday party for her father, her family, and some important guests. Among those guests are Anne’s romantic attachment
, played by Charlie Cox (Casanova), a young Member of Parliament named Hector, played by David Tennant (Dr. Who), and a rather mysterious government man named Balcombe, played by Jeremy Northam (Emma, Possession). Lawrence
At the dinner Hector rather vigorously denounces Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler and says that something has to be done to get Winston Churchill in power. Balcombe continually feeds Hector more prompts to continue. You can tell that Balcombe does not agree and he gives off a rather dangerous vibe. Two weeks later Hector is dead, apparently by his own hand.
Meanwhile, Anne stumbles upon some government records and recordings out in a shed on the property while she is retrieving a lost cat. She brings one in to play on the gramophone and it’s just some boring meeting notes. She asks her father what it is and he tells her that the government has been asking various members if records can be stored on their property because of the volume of them. He says that Balcombe is the one who asked that they be stored. Anne already doesn’t like Balcombe and has asked her father not to invite him back again. The father agrees to tell Balcombe that he can’t store his records there and that he has to come remove them. He does, but not before Anne steals a couple of recordings to listen to what is on them.
By this time, Anne is starting to wonder is she is getting paranoid, or if it’s her actress instincts that are making her see something sinister where there is nothing going on. She listens to the first record and comes across a conversation where it sounds like Hector was being threatened by Balcombe. Before she can get anyone else to listen to it, though, a servant knocks over the gramophone and the record breaks. Was this an accident or was the servant up to something?
Here is where the movie starts a slow, very effective build of tension and paranoia. It is not unlike a Hitchcock film where an ordinary person is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Anne now starts to believe that there is some kind of plot going on. She listens to parts of the other record, but it just seems to be more boring meeting minutes that she can’t follow. She is not very knowledgeable on the current government, and she can’t ask her family for help in understanding it because that would mean admitting that she had stolen Balcombe’s recording. She asks her co-star Gilbert, played by Hugh Bonneville (Lost in Austen), to listen to the other album and let her know if he can understand what they are referring to. He agrees to listen to it with her, but then asks to take it with him to listen to later. Is he really going to help her, or is he going to destroy the evidence? He shows up late for filming the next day, without the recording, and looking very disturbed.
In the meantime, Anne tries to get in touch with her lover Lawrence. She is told he is in
and cannot be reached. She challenges this because France is supposed to be somewhere else. The secretary on the phone pauses then tells Anne that Lawrence Lawrence returned from there that morning and has already headed out to . Was this pause just the ordinary one that happens when a person on the phone has half a mind on the conversation and gets handed a note to read, or was it the secretary having to come up with a lie to cover up what has really happened to Lawrence? France
Anne ends up finding a revealing fact that causes her to wonder who she can trust. This is when literally everything that happens around her suddenly becomes questionable. Who is that man on a bicycle that just rode by? Is he watching her? Who can she trust? Is someone in her family in on it? Are the servants? Why is she being separated from the rest and sent to visit her Aunt Elizabeth? Why does her young cousin Walter seem to show up in certain places where things are happening? (And as the viewer, if Walter is suspected of something, can we trust the elderly Walter who is telling us this story?)
In regards to the narrative, this movie has the same flaw as Titanic (1997) and so many other movies that use this device: the person telling the story cannot possible have known about all the things we see on screen. Like all those other movies, you just have to go with it on this one, too.
I called it a political thriller that slowly builds tension and paranoia. For some people it might move too slowly. It’s a two hour movie and 10-15 minutes could have probably been cut out of it. This also means that even though there are a few deaths you should not expect a dead body to show up every 5-10 minutes. It’s not that kind of thriller. It’s more a whodunit and a “what’s going on”.
One note for animal lovers – there is a scene in this movie that you may find disturbing. It is relevant to the story on two levels, though, so it is not gratuitous. Explaining exactly why it is relevant would be a spoiler, though.
The period clothing, cars, houses, locations, etc. are all excellently done. The history of the period is also quite well researched. If you know nothing about the policy of trying to appease Hitler prior to World War II then you may miss out on why it was so important to some people to both support and oppose it, which then leads to the events in the movie.
In reading comments on IMDB I am frankly amazed at how much confusion there is as to what happens in the movie, especially the ending. I just have to chalk that up to spending too much time on their phones instead of watching the movie. Other posts criticize the ending because they wanted a Rosemary’s Baby ending or a really improbable soap operish ending. (“Actually I am really X and I am here to get my revenge. HA HA HA HA HA HA!”) There is nothing otherworldly going on, and it’s far from being a soap opera.
If you are looking for Jason Bourne, then this is not the movie for you. If you are looking more for a Hitchcock-like tale of growing tension and paranoia, then give this one a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
[Note – you can see all the Movies by Numbers, as well as get some hints on what’s to come, at this link.]