Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard
(Paramount Pictures / GK Films / ImageMovers)
US theatrical: 23 Nov 2016
UK theatrical: 21 Nov 2016
Midway through Robert Zemeckis’s latest romance-thriller, Allied, you realize that both the romance and the thrill are gone. In fact, Allied burns through all of its thrills within the first 30 minutes. All that remains is a wafer thin detective story told at a lethargic pace.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard smolder with intensity, but much like 2016’s earlier romance clunker, The Light Between Oceans, this film insists upon keeping its sizzling couple apart. Ultimately, Allied is undone by that familiar Hollywood compulsion to surprise audiences rather than give them what was promised.
Cotillard is arguably among the most talented and beautiful actors in the world. She completely dominates the first act of Allied, creating a heroine who is at once powerful and sexual, while remaining allusive and vulnerable. The ease with which Cotillard controls each scene is overshadowed only by her generosity with the sometimes wooden Pitt. Why Zemeckis (The Walk, Flight) hides her for the remainder of the film is baffling and frustrating. It’s also a decision that kills his film… dead.
It’s 1942 and the world is waging war against Hitler’s Germany. Max Vatan (Pitt) is a hotshot Canadian pilot who’s handy with a gun and looks damn good in a suit. Pitt plays Max like he’s auditioning for Daniel Craig’s vacancy; with quiet cool and deadly efficiency. He comes to Casablanca on a mission to dispatch a high ranking German officer. It’s likely a suicide mission, as the dapper assassin must make his move at a bustling party that’s sure to be crawling with trigger-happy German soldiers.
His only ally is the exquisite French agent, Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), who is charged with playing the role of his adoring wife. Burned by a mysterious undercover operation that went tragically wrong in Paris, Marianne is the kind of woman who hides her secrets with a beguiling smile and an intoxicating perfume. She prepares for each mission with a methodical attention to detail. Max arrives to find she has already arranged his airtight alias, as well as a closet full of tailored suits to fit every occasion.
Marianne instructs Max on the ways of Casablanca in a series of luxurious scenes that perfectly capture a couple falling in love. When a chivalrous Max offers to sleep on the couch, Marianne informs him men in Casablanca sleep on the roof “after making love to their wives”. Their nightly rooftop rendezvous starts as an awkward show for nosey neighbors, but slowly escalates into deeper conversation about hopes, dreams, and fears. She teases him about his weak Parisian accent (though Pitt does a serviceable job with his French), saying that it sounds more like Quebec. “Le Québécois,” she playfully taunts him throughout a first act overflowing with tension and teasing. These moments, delicate and fleeting, carry surprising power.
After the bloody assault on the German shindig, however, Allied goes into a death spiral of boredom and repetition. The relationship between Marianne and Max becomes formulaic, especially after Marianne is accused of being a German spy. She’s quickly banished to the kitchen with her newborn baby, while Max stumbles around London looking for clues to prove her innocence.
Half the fun of a movie like this is rushing to judgement, only to be proven wrong by a clever twist in the script. Steven Knight’s lumbering script, however, has no intention of providing any clues. The entirety of the film’s second half consists of Max tracking down a one-armed drunkard who can prove Marianne’s identity. That’s it! What should have been a minor plot point is stretched into an entire film. Frankly, this painfully thin material is beneath the talents of a director like Zemeckis.
Zemeckis has always been a sucker for subtext and symbolism. Volleyballs, boxes of chocolates, and various timepieces have all played prominent thematic roles in previous films. In Allied, what little symbolism he employs is clunky and ancillary to the plot. When Max rips family photos in half to circulate Marianne’s likeness, you can feel the heavy hand of Zemeckis pounding his point home. “Get it? He’s tearing their marriage asunder with his suspicions!” It’s obvious and awkward, and adds no texture to a plot that desperately needs some added dramatic oomph.
To his credit, Zemeckis does stage one hell of a first act. Along with cinematographer Don Burgess, Zemeckis creates a Casablanca vibrant with culture and mystery. Languid sunsets over the Sahara bleed into sweat-soaked nightscapes. In fact, the film’s evocative lovemaking scene between Pitt and Cotillard takes place in a car as it’s battered by a deafening sandstorm. With a better script, this type of artistic flourish might have boosted Allied from Hollywood potboiler into Oscar darling. Instead, it just taunts you with the sultry delight it might have been.
Again, it can’t be overstated how much the movie needs Marion Cotillard. It’s not that Brad Pitt isn’t good; he just can’t elevate this mediocre material like Cotillard can. Hers is easily the more interesting character, but she must remain cloistered away in order to preserve the element of surprise. The love affair between Max and Marianne is the emotional core of Allied. Once that relationship (and Cotillard’s considerable talent) is squandered, there’s simply no reason left to care about any surprise ending.
The filmmaking and performances in Allied are both capable. The problem lies in the story (or lack thereof) and its execution. You’ll be aching to see more of the haunting love affair between Max and Marianne, but all you’ll get is some predictable sleuthing and an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s hard to think of Allied as anything more than a tantalizing missed opportunity.