"Charlotte Gray"

Gillian Armstong's latest triumph is a juicy melodrama starring a stunning Cate Blanchett.

Published December 28, 2001 8:11PM (EST)

For a movie that's essentially somber, "Charlotte Gray" is lush, even juicy entertainment. The director, Gillian Armstrong, has made a genre movie in a genre nobody works in anymore. "Charlotte Gray" is, at heart, a '40s women's melodrama, and to some viewers, especially younger ones, the movie might seem a mass of clichés.

Armstrong revels in the movieness of it all. She wants to sweep us up into a drama of wartime romance and intrigue, to delight in old-style movie glamour, and she pulls it off without resorting to gush. I ate it up.

"Charlotte Gray" doesn't have the freedom of Armstrong's great "High Tide," and the period setting -- occupied France -- doesn't breathe in the way the period settings of her "Mrs. Soffel" or "Little Women" did. Directors and actors frequently feel stymied in period pictures. The costumes and period decor put a barrier between them and the script until we feel as if we're in a museum whose purpose is to win Oscar nominations. With "Mrs. Soffel" and "Little Women," Armstrong didn't suffer those inhibitions; the movies were emotionally and dramatically direct.

"Charlotte Gray" comes to us through the glowing, daydreamy haze that movies and espionage novels have conferred on World War II. Although the material, taken from Sebastian Faulks' novel, has its basis in the true stories of the women who were agents for Britain's Special Operations Executive organization, "Charlotte Gray" takes its cues from the ways in which we have come to think of World War II as a movie.

Perhaps even people who lived at the time, though at a safe enough remove from combat, romanticize their memories of the era. Part of that tendency is, of course, that WWII was the last war we could feel really good about, the one whose necessity (except to the extreme reaches of the right and left) has never been in doubt. And because of the vastness of the war, all sorts of people, not just veterans, took part in it, especially in Europe, where everyday life was directly touched by combat -- the Occupation of France or the Blitz, to name the two most famous examples.

World War II has probably produced more good stories than any event in history, and 60 years later, the storehouse of tales doesn't seem close to being exhausted.

Lately, some artists have tried to blend the hold the war has on our romantic imaginations with a sense of the complexities that even a war of good against evil entails. The most notable of them is Alan Furst, whose novels of Europe in the '30s and '40s are both luxuriant yarns and obsessively researched detailings of split factions, as well as examinations of the war's moral contingencies. "Charlotte Gray" isn't as dense and detailed as Furst's work, but it's a pretty terrific read.

It's the story of a Scottish girl who goes to London to work as a medic, falls in love with an RAF pilot, and then volunteers for undercover work in France after he's shot down. "Charlotte Gray" is basically a literary romance novel, but that's not a put-down. It's full of lovemaking and undercover missions and noble speechifying ("Resistance will come in the end. It will come when people see they've been misled. Your problem, monsieur, the problem of the government you support is this -- you took a gamble. You decided to act in a way that you considered practical. All considerations of honour and morality were put to one side because they looked subsidiary in the light of events -- the overwhelming probability that Germany would win the war. And that, monsieur, is the danger of politics. If its practical assumptions prove to be false, you have nothing left to fall back on, because you have already sacrificed morality.")

I don't mean to belittle the drama or moral concerns of Faulks' novel, just to point out how wrapped up they are in conventions. And there's nothing wrong with conventions when they're executed as entertainingly as Faulks manages. He wrote the sort of "old-fashioned" novel that's concerned with giving the reader pleasure (something you might also say of another literary romance novel that appeared about the same time, Valerie Martin's "Italian Fever") with the virtues of character and plotting and conflict.

Gillian Armstrong and her screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, have made almost exactly the movie I hoped someone would from the novel. We know from the opening, when we see Charlotte (Cate Blanchett) riding in a train through the sunny French countryside after the war, raising an elegantly gloved hand to the window as if she were reaching out to her memories, that we're in for a sumptuous melodrama. And the solid craftsmanship, the way the train glides away from and near the camera as it winds its way through the landscape, tells us we're in the hands of people who know what they're doing.

Armstrong and Brock, eager to get to the meat of the story, give the opening sections a graceful concision. We move swiftly from Charlotte's arrival in London, to her romance with RAF flyer Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry-Jones, who brings something warm to a role that could have been just a pip-pip, chin-up chappy), to her receiving the news that Gregory has been shot down, to her training and her landing -- via parachute -- in France.

It's a sleek joke when Charlotte strips off her paratrooper outfit to reveal a sensible, tailored two-piece suit underneath. It reminds you of how people in classic Hollywood movies were always pressed and groomed, no matter what situation they found themselves in. Of course, undercover agents landing in France had to be dressed in civilian clothes, but it's typical of Armstrong's approach that she blends movie conventions with the details of the time.

You see that throughout the section in rural France that's the heart of the movie, with Charlotte working with Julien (Billy Crudup), a member of the French Resistance, while trying to get information on Gregory. And yet Armstrong and Brock never lose the sense that there's something vital at stake.

There's a wonderful detail of Julien saying to Charlotte, "Thank you for coming," almost as an afterthought, after she parachutes in. It tells us how the small niceties of life have become irrelevant. And we're plunged swiftly into life under the Occupation when a contact Charlotte meets in a cafe is picked up, a scene that's a small marvel of sustained tension.

Armstrong doesn't fall for the myth of the glamour of heroics. After the first action Charlotte takes part in, the dynamiting of a train carrying German troops and weapons, she's a mass of nerves, shocked by the fact that she's so easily played a role in killing people. Armstrong gives the scene a fitting coda when a trembling Charlotte returns to the house where she's staying with Julien's father, Levade (Michael Gambon), and he acknowledges her knotted-up mixture of fear and horror and delivers a line, "It's always a shock the first time," that somehow manages to convey the weight of what she's just done.

Gambon, dressed in the torn and dirty corduroys of a country farmer, is superb. With just the right edge of gruffness, he dries out the potential sentiment in the role. His best moment comes when he's confronted by the Occupation police. Asked for his identity papers, he dumps every bit of detritus out of his pockets before locating the tattered card, his eyes radiating a reckless contempt all the while that is the only way he has to hold on to his self-respect.

The line is also a key to the particular perspective Armstrong brings the story. It seems reductive to call her a feminist filmmaker, as if she viewed her characters and material through the narrow slits of ideology. What is true is that no director has more consistently brought a woman's viewpoint, a woman's experience and an acute perception of female rites of passage to the movies. There's a beautiful example of that in "High Tide," when Judy Davis crouches down to spy on the teenage daughter she abandoned years before as the girl shaves her legs for the first time.

In "Charlotte Gray" Armstrong is combining a romantic wartime melodrama with the story of a woman coming into possession of her strength and capability. This is perhaps the only war movie I've ever seen where women are treated as men's equals in the fight. That wouldn't have been possible in a movie that took place on the battlefield, where women didn't fight, but it is possible in a story about the Resistance.

The idea of women's equality is so instinctive a concept to Armstrong that she never resorts to special pleading. When Charlotte endangers a mission by going to get information from her contact (Ron Cook, as a seedy little man whose work in wartime intelligence suggests a better side he isn't totally able to quell), we know she deserves the chewing-out she gets from Julien. She's taken on a serious job and she's expected to live up to it.

Armstrong focuses not only on the ways Charlotte's sex makes her war experience different but the way it leads her to different actions, as when she risks her life to provide comfort to the two little Jewish boys in hiding at Levade's farmhouse. Her actions are a fantasy of female nobility, no less sentimental than a male fantasy of glory on the battlefield, though there's no denying its emotional punch. Armstrong wants to put a woman on the same footing that male veterans of WWII have claimed, of being forever changed by what they did and what they saw. And she succeeds brilliantly.

There are flaws that Armstrong doesn't overcome. It makes no sense that an agent of the Resistance working in secret would make himself so obvious by publicly taunting the German troops as they march in, as Julien does at one point. And so much time is spent on Charlotte's being fluent in French that it's a real boner that, when she gets to France, the movie proceeds in English. Couldn't Armstrong have come up with a device to swiftly deal with that problem -- say, beginning a scene in French and then slowly drowning out the dialogue and bringing the sound up with the actors having switched to English?

But none of those problems do much to erode the movie's pleasure. The cinematography, by Dion Beebe, bathes the movie in autumnal colors. We know there's an overlay of nostalgia on the images, that we're seeing occupied France through the romance of the Resistance. Even Levade's crumbling rural farmhouse looks sumptuous.

The look, though, is part of the movie's seduction, and since it makes you feel pampered, the way films from the studio era often did, who wants to complain? Armstrong's pacing is just right, giving both a sense of the story unfolding and of events happening so fast that instinct takes over. The climax of a subplot involving a schoolteacher who collaborates with the Germans occurs so abruptly that, even though we know what's about to happen, we're unprepared for it and the moment carries a jolt.

Nobody pulls off a movie like "Charlotte Gray" without the right stars. And if Billy Crudup seems constrained and ill-at-ease (his look is too much raw-boned American to make him believable as a European), then Blanchett carries the entire movie on her immaculately outfitted shoulders. It's an absolutely smashing piece of movie-star acting, depending as much on her glamour as on her talent. She has never looked more beautiful than she does here. In the staggering "The Lord of the Rings," director Peter Jackson uses the oddness of Blanchett's beauty perfectly: She's both ethereal and menacing, delicate and hard, unearthly in the truest sense.

In "Charlotte Gray" Blanchett is called on to carry off classic movie charisma, and it appears effortless. Blanchett looks great in her tailored suits and hats, but it's the mixture of fortitude and raw nerves that give the performance its nearly tremulous quality.

Charlotte moves from being a rather prim girl, almost piously serious about the war effort, to a woman who realizes that her earlier earnestness meant nothing without being tested by experience. Blanchett pulls off that transition without giving in to the temptation to act falsely noble in the Greer Garson tradition. Charlotte is too much a scared human being to be inhumanly brave.

Blanchett is particularly suited to playing an undercover agent because she wears her emotions plainly on her face; Charlotte always seems in danger of exposing herself. And though she does very little in the film's closing scenes, set after the war, she conveys the sense of someone who has been irrevocably changed. There's a new gravity in the way she walks, a more watchful manner.

The performance is beautifully in synch with Armstrong's direction. Both Armstrong's and Blanchett's work here represent a triumph of old-style -- and maybe clichid -- movie pleasures redeemed by craft and taste, and by the passion they are brushed with, too. This is a movie that wants to sweep the audience into its grip. (It's the best date movie around right now.) "Charlotte Gray" is redolent with luxurious, old-fashioned pleasures. All we have to do is surrender to them.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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