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