The problem with Charlotte Gray is that it never really lives up to what is should have been. While other Second World War films with female lead characters like Julia, Plenty or Enigma have been successful at portraying the horrors of war while providing dynamic roles for Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett is sort of wasted in this film. It’s not without its intrigue. Trained to be a stealthy courier behind enemy lines, Charlotte Gray is dropped into Vichy France (in a scene that is done far better in A Bridge Too Far) to assist the French Resistance. But Charlotte has an ulterior motive – to find her great love, Peter, an RAF pilot who has been shot down over France. Rather than giving us a story about a woman who selflessly risks her life for her country, we get a love story provided through annoying flashbacks that reveal the true motives behind her sudden burst of patriotism.
The war merely provides colour for a love story to unfold, first between Charlotte and Peter and then between Charlotte and a pilot she meets in France played by Billy Crudup. While I admire Crudup’s work, he is miscast in this role, which should have gone to an English actor. His accent is not quite good enough and I could not get his Almost Famous role out of my mind as he tried to play a Brit. Assigned to the Communist Resistance, a group fighting their own internal battles as much as they are sabotaging the Vichy government and the Nazis, Charlotte seeks to work around her position and piece together what happened to Peter and where he might be if he were still alive.
Amidst the resistance double crosses, love story flashbacks and the blossoming relationship between the two leads, there is a movie here, but for the life of me, I just can’t see why. The elements are all there – action, intrigue, and love – but it is pieced together in a cumbersome fashion and after a while, it is easy to lose interest. Part of the problem is with the war film techniques. The washed-out, grainy post-Saving Private Ryan style is effective at portraying the intensity of battle, but not at showcasing Blanchett’s radiance. And, quite frankly, that’s what I want to see. I want to see Blanchett in vivid colour, not in washed out grey hues. And Vichy France never looked so rainy, ugly and nasty. She is not in the trenches but in small provincial towns that should be beautiful, even if they are bombed out. But this film could have been set in Dresden after the fire bombing because it looks like hell. This is not to say that the Second World War should look nice but the dreariness of this film – which is really just about a love triangle – is a detriment.
Gillian Armstrong is normally a fantastic director, and made one of the most underrated epics with her wonderful adaptation of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, which starred Blanchett in her first big screen role. Armstrong’s Australian films are always smart and interesting, not unlike her Kiwi counterpart Jane Campion. But with Charlotte Gray, it does not feel like an Armstrong film, with no signature touch. For a much better film about women during wartime, see Jonathan Demme’s sleeper Swing Shift, as well as Enigma. For a great movie about the French resistance, seek out John Frankenheimer’s The Train.