UK/USA 2001 : Gillian Armstrong : 121 mins
In dire need of a hit after taking a financial bath with prison comedy Lucky Break, the UK’s main movie producer FilmFour channelled a big chunk of their resources into what must have looked, on paper, a safe bet: a wartime romantic drama based on Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling novel, with critics’ darling Cate Blanchett in the title role.
Charlotte Gray is a plucky young Scotswoman whose fluency in French leads her to being recruited by the British government and sent across the Channel to aid the Resistance. But Charlotte has an ulterior motive – she’s looking for her airman boyfriend (Rupert Penry-Jones), missing in action since his plane was downed over the French countryside. Undercover in a picturesque small village, Charlotte is distracted from her mission by dashing Resistance leader Julien (Billy Crudup), who lives with his father (Michael Gambon) in a crumbling mansion, also home to a pair of young Jewish boys in hiding since their parents were rounded up by the Germans.
Perhaps aware of how vital the film was to FilmFour’s fortunes, director Armstrong has turned out a very safe, careful adaptation, moderately enjoyable but depressingly old-fashioned in almost every regard, taking the most conventional route at every turn. Blanchett fares as well as can be expected, and she gets her Scottish accent spot on, but it’s hard to get especially worked up about Charlotte’s crucial romantic entanglements: Penry-Jones is so wet he barely registers, while Crudup never seems able to relax into his role. This is perhaps because Julien, like everyone else in his village, speaks French-accented English throughout – after making such a big deal about Charlotte’s linguistic skills early on, the film never lets us hear them in action. It’s clearly tricky to make a mainstream, accessible movie seem at all authentic when various characters are supposed to be speaking English, French and German – but it’s not impossible, as The Hunt For Red October so nimbly proved.
Like the other current film about a young Scotswoman engaged in Gallic derring-do, Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke, Charlotte Gray has a few moments of convincing drama, but these never build up into anything especially engaging or memorable. It’s a shame, because several sequences suggest the project might perhaps have reached the level of previous ‘heroine of the resistance’ dramas like Julia and Plenty: a tense exchange in a caf; Charlotte’s meetings with her grumpy contact (the excellent Ron Cook); an improvised aeroplane runway made of torches. And there’s a powerful moment near the end when you think Armstrong is going to show some of her heroine’s courage and finish on a real downer. Mais non, sadly: she’s more concerned with crafting yet another in the current run of easy-does-it, Sunday-afternoon-TV-ish visions of the past: Captain Corelli’s Chocolat, if you like.
11th March 2002
(seen 25th February, Cineworld Milton Keynes)
by Neil Young
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