After her film debut in Nicholas Nickleby in 2002 and critically acclaimed performances in Tim Fywell’s I Capture the Castleand François Ozon’s Angel, Romola Garai has made a name for herself in cerebral period dramas. In 2009 she teamed up with Stephen Poliakoff on his return to cinema after a 13-year absence for the pre-war thriller Glorious 39, which explores the appeasement movement in the UK on the eve of the Second World War.
LWL: Glorious 39 tackles something of a taboo, which is the notion that pre-war, Britain was anything but united against fascism. Your character is somewhat pivotal in the discussions around identity that underpin the plot.
Garai: I think it would be disingenuous to say that I had to carry the burden of that, because obviously Stephen [Poliakoff] as writer and director very much kept control of what he was implying and what he wanted to make of it as a piece of art. Obviously I find that fascinating, but my role was really just to be as much a tool for him as possible in terms of telling the story as a thriller, because it works on these two slightly different levels. I just had to pull the audience through the story as a suspense story, rather than as a piece of social history.
Stephen’s knowledge of the subject is enormous and his passion for it is obvious – do you get carried along with that?
You mean he’s exhausting to work with?
Exhausting to work with, exhausting in terms of the fact you know you can’t even get close to his knowledge of it. I mean, I knew a bit about it already. I’d read a really great book about the Spanish Civil War by Anthony Beever a couple of years ago for my own entertainment and that had a lot of information about Britain’s response to fascism in terms of Spain. It was not a flattering period in our history at all, in that Franco and the fascists were very heavily funded by the Brits, and they probably won because of international support for their cause. So I knew that the political landscape in Britain was much more speckled than we would be encouraged to believe, but when it came to the details of the very specific texts that he’d used to research the film, he didn’t encourage me to do that much research, because the character I play is deliberately a politically naïve person. I would have been more than happy to read more because I’m a bit of a history buff, but he sort of steered me away from it and said, I want you to be in a position of ignorance when you’re playing these scenes, and not having to fake that.
But surely it’s impossible to be ignorant of what comes next – there is the impending spectre of the Holocaust.
And the film doesn’t take a position on it. And it works slightly strangely as a suspense thriller, because normally with suspense the idea was that the film doesn’t have a self-conscious knowledge of what’s going to happen. It wants got one single objective and that is to keep you guessing. This film wants to keep you guessing but the same time it has a portentousness to it as well, because you know, the scene in the vets, the piles of dead carcasses, it’s full of thinly-disguised holocaust imagery. And so it does contain two different kinds of goal.
With the Iraq war hearings unfolding and the discussions around the same ideas of appeasement and concealment of evidence, there’s a very obvious link to contemporary politics – was that explicitly discussed while making the film?
Absolutely, I think Stephen wouldn’t really be interested in a subject that didn’t have relevance today. I think he does make period pieces, but they’re always very recent history and they’re always things that he can invest in emotionally. I think also what’s really interesting the film was… because of what’s happened with MI5 suddenly being forced by the Law Lords to reveal their sources in terms of collaborating with torture, it’s quite extreme and I think quite poignant.
Those themes – concealment, lost documents – come through in a lot of Poliakoff’s work.
He has a really, strong, distinctive style, and I think it’s something to do with the nature of storytelling. He’s very aware when you’re watching his films that it is a story, the artifice of it is quite strong and quite obvious, and what I think he wants you to do is to be quite distant from the film and to understand that, you know, that the film is a lie and that he’s talking about storytelling and the lies involved in people’s lives and, about deceit and so on, and as you say, those are themes that run through pretty much all of his oeuvre.
Your career has mirrored his somewhat – to an extent you’ve eschewed the mainstream to go for more cerebral, period pieces. Is that conscious or have you been pushed along that route?
With someone like Stephen the decision has definitely been a very conscious one to reject a medium that will offer you more money but only in exchange for a loss of control. There’s a spectrum that includes everybody, and he is on the extreme end of the spectrum where he will only really do anything if he has complete control over it. For actors it’s different. We can’t ever have control. I have tried to only do things that I think are valuable and that I would enjoy doing and get pleasure out of creatively and intellectually, but I don’t get every job that I go up for, and you don’t necessarily have the same level of control over your career.
You’ve said before that you’d like to move towards writing – is that a reflection of that desire for control?
I don’t know. I think sometimes you get wistful and you long for more control over your career. But on the other hand, I do love my job. I really love acting and I think sometimes it just takes time to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to be struggling to get work, you’re going to be out of work from time to time, all those kind of sob stories everybody knows. If you really love it, you just have to kind of put up with it, although I do scribble a bit, and you never know, that might come to something one day.