In a perfect cinematic world, “Charlotte Gray” might have emerged as a sober 10th-anniversary rebuke to the 1992 laugher “Shining Through,” which attempted to deploy Melanie Griffith as the pride of the OSS spy agency and blundered into sublime, albeit unintentional, hilarity.
Derived from a best-selling English novel by Sebastian Faulks, “Charlotte Gray” reunites the estimable Australian team of director Gillian Armstrong and leading lady Cate Blanchett in a would-be poignant and suspenseful World War II yarn: the account of an idealistic Scottish recruit to the ranks of the SOE, the Special Operations Executive, a British espionage agency that specialized in the infiltration of saboteurs and couriers into occupied Europe. Unfortunately, the sincere and earnest aspirations of “Charlotte Gray” also reveal feet of clay. So much so that I felt a nostalgic pang for “Shining Through,” which generated more entertainment value while exposing everyone on the screen to prolonged ridicule.
This contrast obliges one to admit an embarrassing fact of moviegoing: Sometimes bad movies justify their existence more than not-so-bad but seriously uninspired movies.
Miss Armstrong and Miss Blanchett misjudged the romantic grandeur of their earlier collaboration, an adaptation of the Australian historical novel “Oscar and Lucinda.” I fear they are still a bit out to sea.
Charlotte’s passions remain slackly focused despite the urgency of the setting and her dangerous profession.
A chance meeting on a train, where a fellow passenger notices that Charlotte happens to be reading Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” in French, leads to an overture from SOE once the heroine reaches London, where she hopes to contribute in some way to the war effort.
There’s a line that summarizes not only what Charlotte hopes to embody, but also what the audience would prefer to take away from such a movie: “War makes us into people we didn’t know we were.”
Specifically, braver and more dedicated people than peacetime society might encourage. While in training, Charlotte becomes infatuated with a Royal Air Force pilot, Peter Gregory, embodied with a telling mood of lovelorn fatalism by Rupert Penry-Jones. When Peter is lost in action over France, Charlotte nurtures the hope that her own assignment will make it possible to find and aid him. Dropped by parachute near a village called Lezignac a spectacle that Miss Armstrong tries to finesse without a persuasive illusion that her star is descending over night skies, even in a studio Charlotte discovers a mundane set of obligations.
Functioning largely as a courier while taking care of SOE business, she poses as a housekeeper named Dominique, supposedly a displaced family friend sheltered by Michael Gambon as Levade, the irascible but ultimately gallant, widowed father of a Maquis sapper named Julien (Billy Crudup), who blows up Wehrmacht trains by night and seems to blow his cool by day.
Anyway, Charlotte, or Dominique, must impulsively kiss him one day in the town square to stifle an outburst of patriotic rancor hurled at German troops. It seems Lezignac has become a garrison, presumably in response to Julien’s most recent railway caper.
Although it’s the father who commands more respect as a character because of the sacrifice eventually demanded of him and because of Mr. Gambon’s gravitas Charlotte is meant to form a passionate attachment to explosive Julien. This development seems less plausible as enacted than the aversion she feels for a scurvy collaborator named Renech (Anton Lesser). More or less the snitch of Lezignac, he threatens Dominique with fatal enmity unless she consents to humor his lust. In addition to keeping house, the heroine must keep tabs on two little boys entrusted to the local underground by their Jewish parents.
Evidently oblivious to the surrounding peril, the children tend to wander off, requiring prompt and recurrent rescue missions from Dominique.
The Levade farmhouse is a scenically impressive cavern of a domestic set, conveniently honeycombed with hiding places for either restless youngsters or hunted spies.
The story seems to require at least three epilogues to confirm decisive changes in Charlotte Gray.
The final one will be familiar if you have seen “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” The switch is that Cate Blanchett is Nicolas Cage and Billy Crudup is Penelope Cruz.
Is it possible there’s a whole school of English best sellers about World War II that end with essentially the same denouement?
TITLE: “Charlotte Gray”
RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence and intimations of torture and extermination in a wartime setting; occasional profanity and sexual allusions)
CREDITS: Directed by Gillian Armstrong.
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes