Main cast: Cate Blanchett (Charlotte Gray/Dominique), Billy Crudup (Julien Levade), Michael Gambon (Auguste Levade), and Rupert Penry-Jones (Peter Gregory)
Director: Gillian Armstrong
There’s something fabulously glamorous about Charlotte Gray, something feminist, albeit feminism dolled up in 1940s glamor, that I want to love this movie even if I find it emotionally distant and incoherent at times.
Charlotte Gray plays an idealistic British woman during World War 2. She falls in love with a pilot, Peter, and when Peter is missing during a flight over France, she decides to enlist and play her part as an undercover spy. Her adventures lead her to Julien, a French Resistance and Communist ringleader, and she and Julien as well as Julien’s cantankerous father Auguste soon find themselves falling over each other trying to save two Jewish kids from being taken by the Germans.
What, you cry? It’s war and that woman is still trying to save kiddies, you bark? Well, give Charlotte Gray a break. This movie is unique in that it is a war story where the ideals of womanhood, as opposed to the ideals of manhood, take centerstage. Heroic tales of courageous men tell of their heroic “manly” battlefield adventures. In a time where women often play nurses rather than soldiers, protecting children can be seen as the heroic ideal of a woman’s role in those times. Besides, this is a rare wartime drama where women fight side by side with men rather than waiting at home and weeping while tending the home fires or some rot. You can’t get more affirmative than that.
Just as she did in the frantic Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett proves that she can carry a badly-written movie on the strength of her screen charisma. She’s unconventionally beautiful, and she can be alluring and mysterious with just a small smile playing on her lips. The cameras worship her, and it shows. Unfortunately, in Charlotte Gray, the old school glamor, often cool and distant in a look-don’t-touch way, can also work against her. Charlotte Gray remains an enigma throughout this movie, because she is often too cold and inscrutable. The only one time Ms Blanchett looks alive is when she is pointing a gun at a Nazi soldier’s head. In that scene, her eyes are raw and I know that she has everything banking on that moment. She will lose everything if she fails, but she will never go down without a fight.
Billy Crudup and Rupert Penry-Jones, both men beautiful in completely opposite ways (the former is a dark and devilishly handsome man, the latter square-jawed and golden), play second-fiddle to Blanchett, but they do acquit themselves very well. Mr Penry-Jones plays a likeable man whose good-natured facade hides a world-weary exterior, while Mr Crudup’s Julien is a world-weary man who tries to suppress his idealism inside. Damn, I wish I have both men fighting over me.
But stealing every scene he is in is Michael Gambon. He plays Julien’s father, a man who tries hard to make up to his son that he commits the ultimate sacrifice in the end. In the meantime, he is a rogue who is also surprisingly kind and noble.
So yes, Charlotte Gray has a brilliant cast that makes me care for their characters, so much that the loose ends in the movie make me think up alternate endings for everyone in this story. I can’t let go long after the movie has ended.
But at the same time, the characterization and drama take so much centerstage at the expense of exposition and flaw that I have no idea what is going on half the time. When Charlotte cries, “I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore!” to Julien, she’s also speaking for the audience.
As a character drama, Charlotte Gray is a slightly above average story of a woman who remains a question mark to me to the very end. As a plot-driven drama, it’s a mess. Average both and I’ll tell you that this is a well-acted but ultimately frustrating movie.