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