Pretty but pallid

Review: In `Charlotte Gray,' director Gillian Armstrong drains all the emotional energy out of the people who dot her movie's lovely landscape.

January 25, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Charlotte Gray is a freeze-dried version of Sebastian Faulks' juicy novel about a passionate young Scotswoman who enlists with British intelligence and serves as a courier and go-between with the French Resistance during World War II.

On paper it has a lot going for it, including high-stakes espionage and romance, and characters capable of holding more than one ideal or loyalty. But the director, Gillian Armstrong, and her writer, Jeremy Brock, operate more like concept artists here than dramatists.

They've hit on the theme that war is a nasty muddle that drags everyone into compromise, and they've subordinated everything else to that idea, including the heroine's two love interests: an RAF pilot (Rupert Penry-Jones) stranded on his own in France, and a rural Resistance leader (Billy Crudup). In the movie, the pilot is a cipher and their grand passion pallid - a flimsy excuse for Charlotte (Cate Blanchett) to leap at the chance to go to France. The Resistance man has a lot more screen time. He only registers as a cipher.

The moviemakers want to build to the moment when their fumbling heroine tries to redeem herself with one small act of consolation for two Jewish children on their way to the concentration camps. (In the book, she does something similar for the Resistance hero's father.)

But Armstrong and Brock haven't brought the narrative to the simmer that could erupt at the end in a full emotional boil. Right at the start, they simply lop off whole sections of Charlotte Gray's development, including most of her recruitment and training. In the movie, when she lands in France under the name of Dominique, she starts her career with a fatal faux pas - forcing a shrewd, desperate-to-flee contact to spend a few seconds longer in a cafe so she can ask about her RAF lover. She seems both hopelessly selfish and impossibly ill-trained.

The shots of trains chugging through sylvan splendors have a fabulous David Lean-like luxury, but Armstrong, who's been floundering since her inspired remake of Little Women (1994), has begun to view her actors strictly in visual terms. How else do you explain the casting of Michael Gambon and Billy Crudup as father and son?

It's droll to figure how Crudup's crisp leading-man contours could crumble with age and weight into Gambon's marvelous rockpile, but these two sound nothing alike and don't convey the necessary combination of deep rapport and friction. At least Gambon brings his own emotional authority into the movie; Crudup makes all the right moves, but shows no evidence of an internal compass.

When Gray returns to England Crudup recedes from our thoughts like a good-looking blur, making the film's final romantic reckoning (the opposite of the book's) inexplicable. Crudup is the oddest actor - sensational in Without Limits, a pillar of narcissistic rock-star strength in Almost Famous, and here an improbable Resistance recruiting poster.

What happens to Blanchett is far more bewildering. Armstrong introduced the actress to international audiences with Oscar and Lucinda (1997), but this remarkably daring and versatile performer has done vastly better work for directors like Barry Levinson (Bandits), often in films just as flawed as this one, like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Shipping News.

Scene by scene she looks great. Armstrong frames and lights her broad features with love, until she resembles an expressionist rendering of '40s big-screen heroines like Ingrid Bergman. But her character amounts to a hum of neurotic intensity. It may be that Blanchett is too closely tuned to Armstrong's wavelength, pitched in a register that the rest of us can't hear.

Charlotte Gray

Starring Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Rated PG-13

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 121 minutes

Sun score **

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