The untold stories of great historical events are a favorite source of inspiration for authors and filmmakers, but we so rarely hear the untold fictional stories of ineffectual goofballs and their idiotic, failed ventures.
Such is the saga of Charlotte Gray, a deadly-dull World War II drama directed by the eclectic, overrated Gillian Armstrong (Little Women, Oscar and Lucinda), based on a novel by Sebastian Faulks. While plodding through two hours of mistakes, confusion and bitter regret for our heroine, it’s almost impossible to tell why Armstrong and star Cate Blanchett chose to bring this drama of errors to the screen. If this is a female empowerment fable, maybe sisters shouldn’t be doing it for themselves.
Charlotte Gray (Blanchett) is just a regular Scottish girl working as a nurse in London when a British spy recruiter spots her on a train reading Stendhal in the original French—that’s the kind of stodgy plot device that drives almost everything in this slow, slow film. The British are desperate for French-speaking operatives to go undercover in Vichy France, despite the fact that once Charlotte gets to France, she pretty much speaks English all the time. After her fighter-pilot boyfriend of a few weeks gets shot down behind enemy lines, Charlotte joins up in hopes of somehow rescuing him.
So she parachutes into France, where she meets Julien (Billy Crudup), her Resistance contact—and screws up her first assignment so completely that she has to change her cover. Other screw-ups follow, both hers and Julien’s, as they gradually lower their goals in the hope of finding one thing they can do correctly to fight the Nazis. Not only do they stink at their jobs, they stink slowly, thanks to Armstrong’s glacial pacing.
For a thriller, there’s not a lot of spine-tingling going on here. It’s as if Armstrong filmed the movie, but never screened it for an audience. It should have been easy to tell how slowly it was moving, and how detached an audience becomes when nothing good happens to anybody. Early on, the plot promises large-scale espionage and intrigue, but it rapidly degenerates into an uninvolving attempt to save two Jewish kids from the Germans’ clutches. The solution is both unsatisfying and unrealistic, and yet it passes for a climax.
With her attractively off-kilter eyes and lips, Blanchett is always intriguing to observe. In the cardboard role of Charlotte Gray, however, her acting skills are never tested. She smiles, cries and makes out with guys on demand as the dull script slogs ahead. It doesn’t help that the costume designers keep her gorgeously outfitted and fully made up—even in the height of Nazi occupation, she’s got a ton of clothes to choose from, and she never seems to get mud on her high heels. It’s as if a congressman’s wife has come to save France.
Crudup, the pretty-boy zeitgeist star of Almost Famous and Jesus’ Son, can barely be bothered to hang out in this film. He uses a soft French accent that fades in and out like an AM radio station, and he doesn’t do much more than stare and smile. It’s a mystery how he became the Next Big Thing while true incendiary talents such as Dustin “Screech” Diamond and Matt LeBlanc toil unrewarded in series television.
On the other hand, maybe Armstrong thought she was being clever by subverting our normal expectations. Usually on film, early missteps are followed by a redemptive improvement, but Charlotte can’t really manage to do anything right early, late or in between. Her pro forma redemption is a lame, hollow gesture that’s accomplished by highly improbable means. Moreover, it’s just not exciting.
Somewhere near the end, long after you’ve lost the power to care, Charlotte says, “I don’t know what I’m doing here any more.” Get in line, lady.