The movie begins with a young lad going to London to see his two elderly cousins, Walter (Christopher Lee) and Oliver (Corin Redgrave) to ask about his forgotten Aunt Anne. She disappeared in 1939. Walter was a boy and Oliver was a baby so what they remember about events would mostly be the memories of other people. Though Walter will prove to be a key part of one mysterious event.
Anne (Romola Garai), an actress, is the adopted daughter of Alexander Keyes (Bill Nighy) and his slightly peculiar wife Maud (Jenny Agutter) who is infatuated with her gardening. There are two natural children Celia (Juno Temple) and Ralph (Eddie Redmayne) who both seemingly adore Anne and even defer to her. They play games involving fat knights in a nearby picturesque ruin probably once occupied by their ancestors. Even as young adults they still like to wander among the shattered walls and the crumbling stone.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has just returned from Germany with an appeasement agreement with Germany famously waving in his hand. Churchill is the only one convinced that war is unavoidable and the longer England takes to realize this fact the harder Adolf Hitler will be to stop. For now though, Anne can ignore the gathering storm, and work on filming her movie along with her good friend Gilbert (Hugh Bonneville).
It was interested how people outside the immediate family keep reminding Anne that she is adopted. The most annoying case is when the new vicar tells her how fortunate she is to have been taken in by such an illustrious family. He made it sound as if she were a waif that just wandered onto the estate from a nearby wood. Anne sees herself as a full fledged member of the family, and even when offered the chance to find out about her real parents she refreshingly shows little or no interest.
The world that Anne thinks she knows becomes a childish illusion when she stumbles across some 78 rpm records in the potting shed that are labelled with dance tunes, but when played are recordings of meetings between people looking to keep the appeasement even as the English government is quickly realizing that Chamberlain's agreement with Hitler was nothing more than lies wrapped in more lies. When Anne discovers that Hector (David Tenant), an MP who was a friend of the family and an ardent supporter of Churchill, commits "suicide" she starts to believe that there are forces within the government that are working against the government. She asks for help in deciphering the significance of what she has heard on the records. Her own life begins to feel precarious as those people that choose to help her are eliminated one by one. Her worst fears are realized when she finds herself locked in a room, drugged.
As war is certain and people start to close up there houses in London to escape to the country they have their pets put down by the local vets for lack of anyone to care for them. There is this scene, which was surreal, like something out of a painting by Bosch were Anne is walking through this shed filled with hanging bags of precious pets that is somehow as tragic as seeing stacked bodies of people.
There are a couple of interesting twists which I will not reveal here. Be assured the plot is well conceived. The main issue I had with the movie was the pacing. I felt there were a few lost opportunities when moving the plot along a little faster would have ratcheted up the suspense. Regardless, I was still feeling my share of tension as I worried about the fate of the lovely and gracious Anne. I would have probably cut the scenes at the beginning and the end with Christopher Lee and Corin Redgrave mainly because they just weren't necessary to the plot. I felt they added more confusion than clarity. Even though the movie has issues I've found myself thinking about it several times over the last few days. Romola Garai was a bonus among such an illustrious cast. She absolutely lit up the screen. I have a feeling she will soon become a household name.