Charlotte Gray - rated - TEPID

A beautiful resistance

"Where nothing is unthinkable, anything can be true - even a lie." So says Cate Blanchett as Charlotte in the opening narration. It's a nice theme which the film explores to a degree, but it seems to get distracted by the romance of war as seen through a veil of beauty. So ultimately I found Charlotte Gray unsatisfying.

For one thing the production design is too obvious - the first part of the film is all browns and & greys, with Charlotte picked out in red - red coats, red beret. It's as if the costume designer had seen a double feature of Schindler's List (1993, Spielberg) and Don't Look Now (1973, Roeg)and then dreamed all night of Little Red Riding Hood and then started work on Charlotte Gray the next morning.

"Do you think being a courier in France is glamorous? A lot of women do" says a psychologist/ controller to Charlotte. I think he hit the nail on the head with that question. Director Gillian Armstrong is clearly one of those women.

Charlotte stands out in other ways when she arrives in the small town of Lezignac. She walks tall, and she is nowhere near as polite as she should be (as a French woman), but then again -she's supposed to be from Paris. Perhaps that explains it. But then if she's a beautiful and glamorous stranger from Paris, why is she working as a housekeeper on a crumbling farm? She can't even pronounce her own cover-name. As far as I know, in French. Gilbert is pronounced "Zhilbert"! Maybe she's meant to stand out symbolically for the outsider. Now that she's in the country we see her red coat against green trees.

Charlotte bungles her first assignment, and it is surprising when she is overlooked by the police in a café. Quite frankly, I'd have arrested and questioned her as soon as she arrived in the town.

Incidentally, the actress who played Françoise (the doomed contact) is Helen McCrory. I thought she completely stole the scene. She's familiar to me - I think I saw her play Anna Karenina in the TV mini-series in 2000, and she was Nicola Pascoe in The Fragile Heart on TV in 1996. An arresting face!

Dion Beebe did the lensing (as they say in Variety). It is ravishing. The night photography is particularly impressive. We can see everything but it seems as black as pitch. And there's an absolutely fantastic train wreck - it's a scene of utter devastation and very scary.

There's a lot to like about Charlotte Gray. First of all, we love Cate! Can she become any more luminous? And then there's Michael Gambon, who brings a some much needed gravitas and grounding to the film. You believe every scene he's in. But he has to struggle with some dreadful dialogue - particularly about his relationship with his son. And that's a pity because I thought this led to one of the most moving themes of the film.

There are just too many plot problems, and shonky details in the film to make it work for me. Most of this is due (I understand) to the book, and the rest is due to the script. The only thing I can blame Gillian Armstrong for is the overly-pretty look of the film, and for the fact that there seem to be 4 or 5 denouements - and that's 3 or 4 too many.

Here are a few more of my quibbles. I may be wrong about some of them:
· That kissing scene in the town square - the whole thing was too stupid and too risky.
· Did the collaborators always come at dawn to make their enquirers about who is Jewish and who isn't?
· Charlotte/ Dominique seems obsessed by clean clothes. I wouldn't have thought that was a priority for the resistance.

There were a few missed opportunities in the rush to the end of the film. One was in the little boy's defiant look when he insisted on keeping his baggage. It made me think that he might be strong enough to survive,. But nothing comes of this.

But I loved the letter Charlotte/ Dominique wrote for the boys. I was pleased that it picked up the theme of when is a lie justified, and when can it become the truth? But then I thought: do they believe it? Does the older one? Again nothing was made of this.

I likes the train tunnel which reminded me of Auschwicz, but which lead on (via cutting) to London in the blitz - it was a nice touch. But then we entered a holding patter which dragged the ending on and on. Suddenly we're hearing dialogue like: "Are you coming to the pictures? It's I walked with a Zombie. Tom Conway's in it. He's nice"!

Before the end, though, we have to endure some more clunky dialogue, like when Charlotte says (to someone I can't mention): "Its good you got back" says Cate. (What an understatement!)

The ending is undeniably sweet. "My name is Charlotte Gray" she says, and the camera dwells on her face. I think that's part of the problem. The film just loves Cate's face too much.

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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