- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

The Australian director Gillian Armstrong, stopping here to promote the new movie "Charlotte Gray," reckons that almost 20 years have passed since her last similar trip to Washington.

That was for her second feature, the cheerful pop musical "Stagestruck." That movie enjoyed modest popularity in Washington after the long-running vogue of her debut feature, "My Brilliant Career."

Miss Armstrong, it would be fair to say, never failed the promise demonstrated in "My Brilliant Career," which also introduced American art-house audiences to Judy Davis and Sam Neill at the end of the 1970s.

The filmmaker credits "Career" with opening Hollywood doors that have remained open despite her desire to shoot in Australia with some frequency. "Mrs. Soffel" was based in western Pennsylvania, "Fires Within" in Miami and "Little Women" in Vancouver. Miss Armstrong slipped those projects in between "High Tide," "The Last Days of Chez Nous" and "Oscar and Lucinda," all shot close to home.

Married to John Pleffer, a documentary film editor at the Australian Broadcasting Corp., and the mother of two teen-age girls, Miss Armstrong, 51, was determined "not to disrupt their lives."

She acknowledges that the girls, 16 and 13, enjoyed a certain amount of movie travel. "They like hanging around sets," Miss Armstrong says. "When they were little, they liked it because American sets had all these doughnuts and Danish pastries. They were putty in the hands of the caterers. They also liked 'Little Women' a lot, since it was in Canada and they went to school there for a time. They used to play with Kirsten Dunst. Now they're keenly looking at magazine pictures of her as this gorgeous young woman going to previews and things."

Looking back, Miss Armstrong concludes, "I always follow my heart."

She says she felt inundated by Hollywood offers after "My Brilliant Career," an accomplished first feature. "I got all the offers for films about women achievers. You know, the first woman to fly a plane, ride a camel across the desert, climb a mountain. Over the past 10 years the range has expanded in a more flattering way," she says.

Did the Amelia Earhart story cross her desk? "If it's a woman achiever and she lived in the past, then it's come by me," she says.

The curious thing about Miss Armstrong's resume is that it never included an English production until "Charlotte Gray." The movie combines French locations with Pinewood Studio settings in London to chronicle the clandestine service of a young woman who volunteers for the British espionage agency SOE (Special Operations Executive) in World War II and goes undercover as the housekeeper for a French family in a rural community near Toulouse.

"Someone else commented that it's a bit odd to be this late in doing an English movie," Miss Armstrong says. "She thought my films had always had more of a European edge. So maybe it is a curious thing. Actually, the first two weeks of 'Oscar and Lucinda' were shot in England the scenes dealing with Oscar's boyhood. All the rest was Australia, of course, but for this, I had to move to England and do [preproduction] there. I survived the entire winter, says a very happy Australian. We shot from January 2 to April, so I missed out on the whole Australian summer."

Cate Blanchett, who played Lucinda and has the title role in "Charlotte Gray," was instrumental in drawing her countrywoman to the new project. "This came completely out of the blue," Miss Armstrong insists. "Via Cate and the producers, who had done 'Mrs. Brown' with the same screenwriter, Jeremy Brock.

"Cate has been living in England for the past two years. She was in a revival of David Hare's play 'Plenty,' which Fred Schepisi, another Australian, had filmed back in the 1980s with Meryl Streep," Miss Armstrong says. "There were plot similarities between the play and Sebastian Faulks' novel 'Charlotte Gray,' which the producers snapped up when it first came out. Both stories are about women who serve in the French underground during the war. Someone had given Cate the novel, suggesting it would be good research for 'Plenty.' Then Faulks himself went to see the play and sent Cate a copy of his book, adding a note that it would be wonderful if she could do the movie version. Me, I'm in Australia not knowing any of this."

Eventually, Miss Blanchett was approached about portraying Charlotte Gray. She suggested Miss Armstrong as director. "I was in the loop by then," Miss Armstrong says, "and got a first-draft screenplay. My American agent was also keen on it. I thought there had been too many World War II films but agreed to consider it, anyway. When I read the script, I thought it was a take on the war I'd never seen before, except for maybe 'Julia,' all those years ago. I thought I'd never really seen the story of a woman who has to live undercover, and I love Cate. So those were the things that attracted me."

Miss Armstrong scouted locations in France for quite a while before discovering St. Antonin Noble Val, which became the double for the village called Lezignac in the movie. "It's very small," she says. "It's not on the big tourist maps and hasn't been commercialized. We really combed that area. It's not far from where the book is set. We tried to find something that wasn't too chocolate box, something with an austere beauty. Faulks really knows France. He's set four books there, lived there for about seven years and he's bilingual."

Speaking of bilingual, "Charlotte Gray" is an English-language film that sometimes appears on the verge of becoming a French-language film. Miss Armstrong says serious thought was given to switching to French with English subtitles during the second half of the story, after Charlotte begins her undercover life in Lezignac.

"The biggest dilemma of the film was what to do about the language," Miss Armstrong says. "I had the script translated into French, from the point she arrives in France, to see how much we'd have to deal with. Cate was very brave. She said, 'If you want to do it, I'll learn,' but when I saw the mound of French and recalled that it wasn't my best subject in school, I backed off.

"I'd also need to direct children, so I began to add up all the time involved in communicating through somebody else. Performance is about dialogue and fine, fine nuances. I talked to a French-speaking Englishman who pointed out, 'No matter how hard Cate works, there will be some smart person who points out that she'd give herself away in five minutes.'

"The whole story is about someone whose French is so good she could pass as a native speaker. That was a big point in the recruitment," Miss Armstrong says. "So I decided, it's stupid to persist. We'll just go with the convention that's served so many movies: When they're in the foreign country, it's understood that everyone is supposed to be speaking French with a very light accent."

Collectors of movie trivia may want to remember that Miss Armstrong and Steven Spielberg share the same birthday, Dec. 18. A Melbourne native, Miss Armstrong is four years younger.

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