Charlotte Gray
             During the Second World War, an intrepid group of men, and more
     importantly, women, were recruited to serve as spies for the British and
     American governments. In the USA, these citizens worked for the Office of
     the Strategic Services (OSS) which was the precursor to the Central
     Intelligence Agency (CIA). In Great Britain, they were recruited for what
     was called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). In 1998, author
     Sebastian Faulks completed an unofficial trilogy of novels set in France
     with
CHARLOTTE GRAY, the tale of a Scottish woman who wangles a
     spot with the SOE in order to get to France to discover the fate of the
     RAF pilot with whom she is in love. The book had all the earmarks of
     making a terrific movie: romance, a strong female at its center, a
     period setting ... so, upon seeing the film version, one may ask
     "what the hell happened?"

             The film version of
CHARLOTTE GRAY marked the reunion between
     director Gillian Armstrong and actress Cate Blanchett after 1997's
       OSCAR AND LUCINDA. That film introduced the world to Blanchett and
     set the stage for her future career that has come to include an
     Oscar-nominated turn as the Virgin Queen in
ELIZABETH and
     encompassed roles in four other major releases in the USA in 2001.
     (For the record,
THE MAN WHO CRIED, BANDITS, THE SHIPPING NEWS,
     and
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING.)
     According to Armstrong, it was Blanchett who cast her; while appearing
     on stage in
PLENTY (portraying a character that has emotional ties
     to Charlotte), the actress was approached about starring in the film
     version of Faulks' novel. She, in turn, suggested Armstrong should direct.
     On paper, it appeared a perfect match; in execution, it leaves
     something to be desired. The fault is not entirely Armstrong's; she directs
     with a strong visual sense and gets fine supporting performances from
     Michael Gambon and Billy Crudup. Blame should  be assigned to
     screenwriter Jeremy Brock, who diluted Faulks' exciting fiction and
     reduced it to its lowest common denominators.

             The film moves along at a brisk pace in the early scenes, and that
     is part of the trouble. It's too brisk. Charlotte is seen on a train reading
     Stendahl in the original French and before you know it, she's being
     recruited for the SOE. Almost simultaneously, she falls for the dashing
     pilot Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry-Jones, who is appropriately handsome
     and golden) and before they've barely said hello, they're involved in a         
     grand passionate affair. Even for a wartime romance, this one qualifies
     as a winner on
Beat the Clock. When Gregory's plane disappears over
     France, Charlotte agrees to be sent as a courier in the area under control
     of the Vichy government.

             With darkened hair, she becomes Dominique. Since this is all new
     to her, she blunders her way through, including a tense moment when
     the cover of a fellow agent (the remarkable Helen McCrory) is blown and
     the woman is arrested and taken away to a certain death. In scenes like
     that one and others as Charlotte struggles to keep it together, Blanchett
     manages to excel. But in a movie where the stakes should be high, there
     is a curious lack of suspense. Charlotte is given a cover by her contact
     Julien (nicely captured by Crudup, although purists will wonder why Brock
     has chosen to make the character a Communist when in the novel he was
     an avowed anti-Communist). She goes to live with Julien's father Lavade
     (Gambon) who is harboring two young Jewish boys, working as a
     housekeeper and nursemaid. Gradually, Charlotte comes to discover her
     true self, ironically by assuming another identity. That theme is rife with
     dramatic possibilities, but here is an inert subplot that barely registers.

             Part of the problem is that Blanchett doesn't seem to have a fix on
     Charlotte. In the beginning of the film, her Scottish accent waivers badly;
     oftentimes you can her Melbourne when you're supposed to be hearing
     Edinburgh. While Penry-Jones projects the stalwart qualities of a war hero,
     he shares no romantic chemistry with Blanchett. Indeed, their love scenes
     are artfully staged but lack passion. Blanchett also doesn't really connect
     with Crudup either, so when their characters come to realize they
      have fallen in love, it isn't believable. Crudup manages to suggest enough
     of French accent and is consistent in his work, although it is difficult
     to accept Gambon (replete with a British accent) as his estranged father.

             Armstrong has assembled a terrific design team who have captured
     every nuance and period detail, from the superb production design of
     Joseph Bennett to the fine costumes by Oscar-winner Janty Yates to the
     expert camerawork of cinematographer Dion Beebe. Unfortunately, their
     efforts are rendered insufficient by the dull script and lackluster lead
     performance. Perhaps several years hence an enterprising filmmaker
     will decide to remake this movie and get it right.



                            Rating:                C
                            MPAA Rating:        PG-13
                            Running time:       121 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.