Charlotte Gray

Again, it's an end-of-month archival expansion here at Shared Darkness, ergo this review of 2001's Charlotte Gray, originally published upon its theatrical release. To wit:

Growing up in my cul-de-sac neighborhood, bordered by a thick woodland with all sorts of inviting nooks and crannies, “playing war” was a favorite weekend pastime. Us little boys would grab all manner of sticks and brightly colored plastic weapons — later BB guns for those for whom the habit died dangerously hard — and plunge into the woods for hours, engaging in espionage and theatrics the likes of which make sense only in male adolescence.

There was one girl, however — the requisite tomboy sister of the most gung-ho of the lot. She preyed on the expectations of the foolish, of course, and almost always proved indispensable in capturing the flag or locating the enemy fort or whatever the day’s mission was.

Watching director Gillian Armstrong’s Charlotte Gray, based on Sebastian Faulks’ best-selling novel and adapted for the screen by Jeremy Brock, I couldn’t help but find my thoughts returning to that girl, wondering if she was still taking gloriously unfair advantage of the less fair sex. Rooted in fact, Charlotte Gray tells the story of an ordinary woman who finds herself caught up in an extraordinary reality, a reality mostly explored — both in fact, but even more so in fiction — by men.

Cate Blanchett is Charlotte, a well-educated Englishwoman who during the height of World War II joins the Special Operations Executive — a civilian corps, comprised largely of woman, trained in evasion and espionage — and later pushes for deployment in France after receiving news that her airman boyfriend Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry-Jones) has been shot down. Given a few contacts, a back story and documents establishing a new identity, Gray lands (quite literally, she’s parachuted in) in Vichy France, the “free” area of the country where the French are left to police themselves and German “collaboration” is sold by the local constabulary as a patriotic duty.

Her preceptor is Julien Levade (Billy Crudup), a communist resistance fighter who forges an unexpected bond with Charlotte, even going so far as to place her with his father (played by Michael Gambon) after her initial cover is blown. The film’s story and underlying themes — about how events mold us into people we didn’t know we could be — is especially timely given current circumstances, when any given airline passenger could at a moment’s notice be conscripted, called upon to thwart a shoe bomber or God knows what. This intermingling of valor and commonality, the juxtaposition of beauty (Blanchett) and ugliness (the insidious, uncertain conflict that surrounds her), is captured with grace and economy by Armstrong and her production team, including director of photography Dion Beebe and production designer Joseph Bennett. And Blanchett, as always, is fantastically watchable; as Charlotte she gives an intelligent, nuanced performance that shows us the different masks we’re almost all capable of wearing, whether we know it or not.

Charlotte Gray
’s narrative as a whole, however, lacks punch and vim. With a budget of under $25 million, the film has insufficient means to truly convey on an epic scale the consequences of Charlotte’s actions. By necessity, then, it focuses on the personal rather than the political. Yet Julien, though whole-heartedly sold by Crudup, lacks the definition and shading of Charlotte; we never grasp the full manner of his convictions, and the plot element that keeps he and Charlotte together (two abandoned children) is straight out of the stock dramatic playbook. Ergo, Charlotte Gray doesn’t totally get over on the boys. But, oh, the crafty girl from my childhood? She now works in law enforcement, no doubt targeting and taking advantage of those with misguided expectations. Too bad she can’t give Charlotte and Julien a few pointers. (Warner Bros., PG-13, 121 mins.)


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