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Dawn of the dead

The dark shadow of history has always loomed over Stephen Poliakoff’s dramas. But Glorious 39, set o

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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 Geraldine remembers a great ball that was held in London in 1939. "Everybody's life changed after that ball," 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. With this encounter, Poliakoff had found his subject: the collision between a certain kind of Englishness and the dark history of Europe in the 20th century.

It took another 20 years for Poliakoff to find his voice as writer and director. In the space of four years, from 1999 to 2003, he produced his three masterworks: Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001) and The Lost Prince (2003). Each has an apparently simple story - a unique photo archive is to be closed down and the people who work there try to save the millions of old photographs; a large Jewish family has a grand reunion; the Ruritanian world of the English royal family around the time of the First World War is seen through the eyes of Prince John, a child with severe learning difficulties who is prone to epileptic fits. Poliakoff takes these stories and turns them into anatomies of a present that is haunted by the past.

Poliakoff's best films are always set in a familiar and very English world of grand country houses, in which people dress in black tie or ball gowns for candlelit dinners. There aren't many working-class people in Poliakoff's films, nor many grimy northern backstreets or belching factories. Instead, everything is grand: the family reunion in Perfect Strangers takes place in a magnificent West End hotel; the country house in Glorious 39 has been in the family for generations.

But something strange always happens. A mysterious photograph or record is discovered, and turns out to be a clue to some disturbing family secret. Or someone will begin telling a story about the past, which could not be less English - about a little Jewish girl in Germany (Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers), or an Englishman who turns out to be a gypsy. Elliott Graham in Joe's Palace is a strange, fabulously wealthy recluse. He knows there is some secret hidden in his past. It will emerge that the secret is buried in Nazi Berlin.

Poliakoff rubs these two elements - the very English and the decidedly un-English - together, and the result is a mystery that someone will set out to solve. Often these stories involve children. Indeed, you could argue that Poliakoff is more interested in children and families than any other leading writer of his generation. The families he writes about may be rich, but they are always unhappy.

Glorious 39 is full of strange scenes with children. There is the odd boy, Walter, who will grow into the old man played by Christopher Lee. Then there are the ambassador's children at a party thrown at the Foreign Office, and the children running wild on a common. One recalls Perfect Strangers, with the children's party, the two sisters who run away together and hide in the woods during the war, and the story of the Jewish boy and girl in Nazi Germany. The Lost Prince, meanwhile, is all about the history of the early 20th century as seen from a child's point of view.

In the past few years, however, something has started to change in Poliakoff's work. It is easy to say that his later films simply haven't been as good as his great BBC dramas. One obvious difference is that these were much longer. There is a case for saying that Poliakoff's best work needs time and space in which to unfold.

There has also been a darkening of tone. The feeling of suspense in his most accomplished work heightens when a character tries to make connections between the past and the present. This detective game is what draws his audience in. In Shooting the Past, Oswald and Marilyn use stories to connect images that had previously seemed beautiful or mysterious, but essentially meaningless and discrete. In Perfect Strangers, the central character, Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen), tries to unravel the story behind two mysterious photographs. In both TV dramas, there is a sense of resolution - the mystery is solved. That sense of resolution is probably what ensured they were so popular. Despite the strange suspended quality of the films, there is a happy ending of sorts.

In Shooting the Past and Perfect Strangers, the sheer virtuosity of the storytelling seems to hold everything together. Since then, however, and this is certainly true of Glorious 39, Poliakoff has preferred to offer no resolution. Instead, he ensures that something remains elusive and mysterious. This is historical drama for grown-ups.

David Herman is a writer and former television producer. "Glorious 39" opens on 20 November

 

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This article appears in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains