Charlotte Gray (15)
GREAT war movies generally died out in the 1960s, with only a smattering – A Bridge Too Far, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line – emerging over the years to prop up a once sturdy genre.
At first glance Charlotte Gray looks like joining Private Ryan and Co. Its credentials are certainly impeccable. Taken from the acclaimed novel by Sebastian Faulks it stars star-of-the-moment Cate Blanchett as the young Scot of the title who, during WWII, joins SOE – the Special Operations Executive – and is dropped into occupied France as a British agent to assist the Resistance.
In addition the script is written by Jeremy Brock, of Mrs Brown fame, while the director is Australian Gillian Armstrong, the woman behind My Brilliant Career. So far, so good.
Yet it rapidly becomes apparent that, like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin before it, this is not a movie adaptation that will go down in history.
Part romance, part history lesson, part would-be action drama in the vein of Odette or Carve Her Name with Pride, Charlotte Gray instead becomes merely a rather dull re-tread of other movies, lacking the grit of the stiff-upper-lips films of the ‘50s and ‘60s yet boasting in Blanchett a terrifically strong central performance.
The main problem with this lacklustre offering is that, like John Madden’s version of Captain Corelli, it waters down the drama, cramming three or four plotlines into a packed narrative and managing to dull the edges of them all.
The first, Charlotte’s romance with a dashing airman who is later reported lost over France, sets up the story of what is to come. When she is recruited, trained and transformed from a civil servant into a pistol-packing secret agent she parachutes into France with her own agenda: to find her downed pilot lover.
Suddenly the plot veers off into new territory as she meets, works with and finally falls for square-jawed Resistance leader Julien (Billy Crudup, underused and underwritten). Throw in two Jewish boys earmarked for the death camps and Charlotte finds herself torn between her duty to King and Country and her love and loyalty for France and two young boys she knows little about.
Charlotte Gray is held together by the strong central performance of Cate Blanchett who, as always, is able to reveal flashes of steel beneath her overt femininity. She also dwarfs all her male co-stars save for Rupert Penry-Jones, playing the pilot.
Her transformation is achieved with remarkable swiftness (though Faulks’ novel reveals just how quickly the SOE trained and used its operatives) and her nervousness and being dropped into France is palpable. Throw in superb cinematography (by Dion Beebe) and this becomes a picture postcard of a country under the jackboot.
If Charlotte Gray succeeds it is in its depiction of the outstandingly brave and selfless women who risked – and often lost – everything to ‘do their bit’. Blanchett is excellent. Shame the rest of the film doesn’t match her.