Charlotte Gray Review
It’s World War II. Charlotte Gray (Cate Blanchett) is a Scotswoman working in London. A chance encounter with Peter Cannerley (James Fleet) on a train results in her being recruited as a spy, when Cannerley notices that she is fluent in French. Charlotte begins an affair with handsome RAF officer Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry-Jones). Then Peter disappears, presumed dead. Charlotte agrees to be sent into the Vichy-controlled part of France, posing as a Frenchwoman, to liaise with the Resistance. She also hopes to find Peter. There she meets Julien Lavade (Billy Crudup)...
Based on Sebastian Faulks's bestselling novel, Charlotte Gray is an old-fashioned wartime romantic thriller. Often you expect the word "good" to go before "old-fashioned", but not this time. This film certainly has its moments, but it's deeply flawed and unconvincing. I haven't read the novel, but if you boil down around 500 pages into two hours of screen time, a lot of material will have had to fall by the wayside. (I'm told that there are quite a few departures from the novel's storyline, especially near the end, apparently in an attempt to build up Crudup's role to attract the American market.) In Jeremy Brock's script (he previously wrote Mrs Brown and, further back, co-created the longrunning BBC drama series Casualty), I suspect much of that material was character detail. None of the characters come over as much more that ciphers, though admittedly the miscasting of the two leads doesn't help. Blanchett's Scottish accent comes and goes, and she never seems comfortable in the central role. Billy Crudup and Rupert Penry-Jones, both much better actors than this evidence suggests, can't do much more than be good-looking in a rather wooden way. Michael Gambon is much better as Julien's father, and James Fleet and (briefly) Helen McCrory are efficient in supporting roles.
It's an understandable commercial decision not to have the French characters speaking their own language, or else about three quarters of the film would be subtitled. (German characters do speak occasionally in their own language, which isn't subtitled. Again this is justifiable: as Charlotte wouldn't understand what they are saying, neither should we.) However, it doesn't help verisimilitude, and the light accents the cast adopt take the film dangerously near to Allo Allo territory. Considering this story takes place in the middle of wartime, everything looks a little too pretty. Photography (Dion Beebe), production design (Joseph Bennett) and costume design (Janty Yates) are all very good – perhaps too good. This would be justifiable as a kind of romanticised stylisation, but for that to work the film would have to sweep the viewer along in a state of heightened emotion. But the miscasting I've referred to, not to mention some gaping holes in the plot, keep Charlotte Gray earthbound.
Gillian Armstrong has directed several excellent films, including her debut My Brilliant Career (which was Judy Davis's big break), High Tide, the 1994 Little Women and Oscar and Lucinda (in which Blanchett was first noticed outside her native Australia). It's safe to say that Charlotte Gray won't be among them. Armstrong does a decent job with intractable material, providing some well-staged action sequences. The film misfires: the changes to the storyline won't endear it to the novel's many fans, and for everyone else it's simply too flawed to work.