The mundane side of the spy game is on display in “Charlotte Gray,” a bland and dour screen version of Sebastian Faulks’ highly engrossing bestseller. In a rare disappointing performance, Cate Blanchett stars as a high-strung Scottish woman whose love for a disappeared RAF pilot leads her to become a secret agent in Vichy France. Without supportive reviews, this British-Australian co-production will be a commercial also-ran, even among specialized audiences.
Faulks’ 1998 novel boasts a strong central premise and protagonist, is emotionally involving and above all is so densely packed with detail about life in England and occupied France during World War II that its world comes vividly alive. But script by Jeremy Brock (“Mrs. Brown”) wrings a number of odd changes on the book, none of them improvements. On top of that, director Gillian Armstrong gussies up and prettifies everything when some grit and visual stability is called for, and she shows little affinity for straight-ahead melodrama and suspense that at least would have enlivened the proceedings.
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At a fancy book-launch party during the London Blitz in 1942, Charlotte Gray meets Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry-Jones), the very picture of a handsome pilot whose life is defined by dangerous missions. Highly educated, serious of demeanor and rather curt and nervous by nature, Charlotte willingly goes to bed with Peter in an interlude made much less interesting than in the book by the alteration of one detail: In the novel, Charlotte is a virgin, which lends more weight to her subsequent preoccupation with finding her man; onscreen, it’s just another fleeting wartime romance.
Charlotte’s intimate contact with the military inspires her to join the war effort, and her flawless French (from having studied in Belgium) makes her an ideal candidate to become an undercover agent to work with Resistance fighters in Vichy. With Peter having become lost on a flight over France, Charlotte believes she might have a chance of finding him herself.
After some basic training and a hair dye, Charlotte — code name Dominique — is dropped by night into rural France, where she’s met by some contacts, particularly Julien (Billy Crudup), who goes by the name of Octave and informs her that he’s a communist (another strange and seemingly needless change from the book, in which Julien actively dislikes his communist colleagues within the Resistance).
Posing as a new servant at the run-down estate of Julien’s gruff father, Levade (Michael Gambon), Charlotte settles into life in the village of Lezignac and quickly learns that while conditions in Vichy France are no doubt more tolerable than further north in Nazi-occupied territory, certain aspects are actually more onerous; specifically, in their eagerness to please the Germans, local officials are even more avid than the Nazis themselves in rooting out Jews and applying strict standards for determining who is Jewish.
This affects Charlotte directly when two boys whose parents have been taken away are hidden at the estate, and later when Levade himself is revealed to have “Jewish blood.” Unfortunately, the film treads lightly over the Holocaust-related themes and treats them in maudlin fashion, without adding any insightful angles into the occupation, collaboration and related issues.
Almost paralyzed at first from fear of being discovered, Charlotte becomes involved with Julien’s resistance group in fighting the Germans however they can, notably by blowing up a train one night. This brings Nazis marching into town, and Julien’s little group is soon broken in tragic fashion. In addition to trying to protect the Jewish boys and Levade, Charlotte must fend off the advances of the poisonously obsequious Renech (Anton Lesser), a local schoolteacher and the village’s biggest snitch. None of this, of course, leaves her much time to think about, much less look for, her fallen flier.
Practically everything that happens to Charlotte is dispiriting and sad; character-building, yes, but in the most undesirable sort of way. Yes, Charlotte does become “stronger,” wise in the ways of the world, even heroic, but she also seems drained, beaten down, hollowed out. And Blanchett, normally a brilliant chameleon whose quicksilver talents seem to equip her to play any sort of role, appears all but frozen here, strangely ill at ease and unable to open a window onto Charlotte’s feelings.
Affecting a light French accent, Crudup gets by as the conflicted resistance fighter, Lesser is genuinely creepy as the informer, and Gambon stands out as the old crank who seems beyond caring until extreme circumstances prove otherwise.
Aside from the fact that the novel’s Charlotte moves around quite a lot and in the film stays put, most notable other change made by Brock and Armstrong lies in the ending. Without giving it away, one could argue the film’s finish proceeds from Charlotte’s growth in the course of her difficult journey; in the playing, however, the tacked-on post-war fade-out comes off as pure Hollywood.
Armstrong and lenser Dion Beebe (“Holy Smoke”) send the camera on all sorts of needless swoops, dips and curves, when more simplicity would have done just fine. The French countryside emanates its customary luster, but the London scenes feel excessively polished, with every costume and set decoration looking as though it came right out of the shop.