In many ways, this film is perfect: It is impeccably cast, gorgeously shot, with a spot-on original score.
It is also a brave and interesting film, for a number of reasons - above all because it takes cowardice as its theme, and explores it deeply with an unflinching eye. We see an awful lot of films about bravery, heroism, people risking everything for the sake of others or to Do The Right Thing; the flipside is seldom explored, and it doesn't make comfortable viewing.
Our protagonists here are thoroughly decent people, getting on with what they feel sort of obliged to be doing, but never quite having the courage to do what they really should do. With hindsight, it seems perfectly obvious that it was a grievous mistake to encourage Nazi Germany to re-arm and become a major player in Europe, however ungentlemanly it was to cripple the country at the end of World War One; Lord Darlington's refusal to face up to what was happening smacks of moral cowardice. From outside, too, it seems clear that Hopkins and Thompson are foolish not to just admit they're in love. In spite of this, and in spite of the fact that it seems more and more likely that the characters in question know what they should really do, every one of them is altogether sympathetic. The film is not here to judge; only to probe the devastation that can follow when people allow fear (and a misplaced sense of duty) to hold them back from doing what they should.
I started out by saying that in many ways this film is perfect. There is no mistaking that it faultlessly achieves what it set out to do; this is serious art, executed with great style, with the two main leads giving devastating performances. Precisely because it tackles its themes so expertly, so convincingly, it is also a rather upsetting and profoundly frustrating film. It makes us care very much about these people, and we keep desperately wanting them to make things go right... but life just isn't always like that, you know?
I first posted this on IMDb, and experimentally on Knol.