This melodrama is about a Scottish woman who joins the French underground as a means to find the British pilot with whom she's recently fallen in love. It's a Harlequin novel set in the second world war involving spies, sellouts, determination and betrayal. To its credit it portrays the brutality of the Nazi regime with some accuracy but without anything new to add to the record. Besides that, it's a film that is well represented by its ad art, dated but classically visualized.
Screenwriter Jeremy Brock molds "Charlotte Gray" (Cate Blanchett) from Sebastian Faulks' novel of wartime romance and attempts to throw some weight behind the concept that love inspired by death and quick destinies sometimes goes awry and sometimes takes root in unexpected soil.
Charlotte is trained, renamed (Dominique) and is inserted into the Vichy government part of France by parachute. Once on the ground she makes contact with the French underground where she'll be used as a courier. Her main contact is the intent Julien Lavade (Billy Crudup), leader of the resistance cell. He has just found and rescued two Jewish boys whose parents were taken by the Nazis. He forces them upon his plain speaking, prickly father (Michael Gambon) who has all the room in the world in his country manor of mansion-like proportions. As a cover, Julien ensconses Charlotte into the househould as father's housekeeper and nurse for the children.
But, the wily local grade school teacher Benech (Anton Lesser), whose sympathies run with the occupying Germans, notices the Jewish boys missing from class and tracks them down to father's house. He will use this knowledge for a bit of sexual blackmail with Charlotte when the time is right.
In the meanwhile, the team of underground fighters has its triumphs and its devastations as betrayal and brutality run rampant.
Would that director Gillian Armstrong ("Oscar and Lucinda", "Little Women") had found a way to inject life and death intensity worthy of the passions depicted. If it were a western, it would be called a "meller", a kind of uninvolving story dolled up with impressive acting, pro cinematic artistry and overfed pleas for our sympathies and emotions.
Not that Blanchett and her co-star Billy Crudup don't apply their utmost skills to keep us interested. This duo has some chemistry, but the material keeps most of it locked up, primarily as a means to dramatization. Blanchett is her usual stunning, outfitted with a wizard's touch even when clothed in the most modest of country wear. (Note her outdoor scene with Michael Gambon: a study in subdued greys and browns with a painter's splash of violet on Blanchett's vest). But, given the gritty outfall of a society falling to pieces and the pure malevolence of events, perhaps it's a bit overdone.
What's clear about the overall agenda behind the movie is the adherence to the demands of a period romance novel, providing all the artifice of makeup and wardrobe to keep the heroine gorgeous and physically uncontaminated. In this retelling of an oft-told tale, cosmetics rule.
There's an unerring eye in the design of the movie, with the highest marks for the elegance of cinematographer Dion Beebe's lighting. But he's not alone on that escarpment of artisty, aided by the admittedly delicious costuming by Janty Yates, superb art direction and set decoration. This production is as fine as any but in the service of material that is overdone to the point of triteness.
Michael Gambon, as interesting an actor as there is on any side of the Atlantic, is cast for his hard gruffness with a totally vulnerable interior. The character is an important emotional anchor in a situation that gets out of control, but Gambon's entrenched British manner deceives no one and we're called upon for some theatrical suspension of disbelief as to cultural allegiances -- an off note. It would be worth it if this boat sailed as a cohesive piece, but there's too much missing for the winds of emotion to move it -- or us -- very far.