Charlotte Gray
review by Paula Nechak, 28 December 2001

Those who disliked the Australian director Gillian Armstrong's last cinematic literary adaptation, Oscar and Lucinda - based on Peter Carey's semi-biographical novel - are just as likely to critically strafe Charlotte Gray, culled from Sebastian Faulk's Second World War-time romantic thriller. Faulk's book strived for the potency and epic style of The English Patient, but fell short of that book's studied sense of time and place.

Author Michael Ondaatje's haunting historical fiction was colorful and character-rich while Faulk relies more upon a clichéd milieu and atrophied standard - young woman falls in love and becomes a Resistance fighter when her beloved is shot down over France - but you've got to hand it to director Gillian Armstrong. She knows how to make a mediocre book come to life onscreen. Oscar and Lucinda - which was also a marvel of a novel - is a quiet film masterpiece that eluded audiences because of its unique insights into the Australian social and cultural milieu. Charlotte Gray is something else entirely. Armstrong's rendering may follow Faulk's beaten word path but it is a surprisingly affecting, effective film that is buoyed by two things - the director's sturdy and impeccable sense of color palette, detail and character and Cate Blanchett's marvelous performance as Charlotte Gray.

Charlotte is a part that would have called for a plucky actress in the old days. It's a "woman's picture" of a film, yearning for the sharp presence of a Greer Garson, and Blanchett, with her radiant, smiling, intelligent eyes and innate curiosity casts a similar spell. She's sexy but not overt. When she exposes her soul, she's gloriously luminous. And her smarts register in every frame of film.

I've read the book by Sebastian Faulk and yes, there are some elemental changes - in the novel the pilot Peter Gregory, who emotionally and sexually awakens the resilient Charlotte in her London flat and is the catalyst that propels the young woman upon her journey midst the rumbling of war, is a bare whisper of a man. He is a baby bird - so thin and pale that Charlotte mothers him as well as makes love to him.

In the film Peter, though likably played by Rupert Penry-Jones, is hearty, blonde and handsome - an accessible, dull soul who harbors nary a whit of mystery or the biting, acquiescent sense of probable doom and self-effacement that would compel a loved one to pursue him across a war-torn continent. But the nurturing - which is missing in the movie - is really key to the relationship that Charlotte later forges with the two half-Jewish boys who have been orphaned after their parents are whisked off to an inevitable end in the dark night. They awaken the maternal urge in Charlotte, who initially opened her eyes to those feelings when wrapped around her half-shaded, frail lover.

But if this is a flaw, it's negligible. When I first read the cast list, I figured the slim, dark Billy Crudup was to play Peter. But he's fine as Julien, the Resistance fighter and Communist who educates the resourceful Charlotte on the ways of betrayal, Nazi-ism and a deeper sort of bond than that of simple passion. And Michael Gambon lends crust in the role of Julien's father, Levade.

After all, this is a heightened time and world and Charlotte's coincidental meeting on a train with covert recruiter "Mr. Jackson," slyly adept at sniffing out young men and women who speak French, have few ties and are willing to risk their lives to resist Nazi Occupation, is brave stuff. "War makes us into people we didn't know we were," she is told, and when Peter is shot down, her destiny seems conveniently sealed. Charlotte becomes code name Dominique and disappears inside her new persona. Charlotte Gray "no longer exists" she's told.

The accents also might be murky in Charlotte Gray, with Charlotte a Scotswoman, Julien a Frenchman and while they waver at times - Blanchett speaking impeccable French and then falling back into English once she's landed in France - are merely other incidental complaints. Blanchett is so physically capable of evaporating into a role within a role that she, like her portrayal of the sensible, giddy Lucinda, a gambling junkie with an unrequited love for a similarly addicted cleric named Oscar, is several people at once.

Even in her sudden media rush of over-exposure in leads and cameos in Bandits, The Shipping News, and The Fellowship of the Rings - as well as the upcoming Heaven, could have tired us of her had she not been so talented and clever in picking lead parts interspersed with little character bits. She disappears into either comedy or drama, lead or support.

Yet it's Armstrong's able hand that gives Blanchett the safety net in which to fly and not fear crashing to metaphorical earth. Like the other actresses Armstrong has steered - Judy Davis in My Brilliant Career and High Tide, Lisa Harrow and Kerry Fox in The Last Days of Chez Nous," Diane Keaton in her best dramatic work in Mrs. Soffel, and, even making Winona Ryder and Claire Danes tolerable in Little Women, she gives her actors stability and artistic freedom.

That she's hooked up with Blanchett once again seems providential. Their prodigious talents compliment each other and in the case of Charlotte Gray elevate what could have been a maudlin, mawkish movie into something visually and creatively engrossing and, better, which feels, for all its ho-hum familiarity, like a genre that's fresh and full of meaning.

Directed by:
Gillian Anderson

Cate Blanchett
Rupert Perry-Jones
Billy Crudup
Michael Gambon

Written by:
Jeremy Brock

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.




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