Partway through Charlotte Gray, intrepid WWII spy Charlotte (Cate Blanchett) is about to parachute into rural France in the dead of night. It’s an exceedingly dangerous mission; her trainer helpfully drops the information that only one third of the women spies come back. Then he asks what appears to be a crucial question: “Faith, hope, or love: which is most important?” She answers carefully, in a low and serious voice: “Hope.” Within minutes, you see why this is a good answer. Everything that follows her initial leap into darkness is a function of hope. Not calculation or careful preparation. Hope. Based on her experience, it seems a miracle that England won the war.
Still, hope works for Charlotte. She’s a passionate, lovely creature, to be sure, swoony, glamorous, and charismatic in the way that WWII movie heroines used to be. Her psychic trajectory is the stuff of big, bold melodrama, not to mention the costumes! From her formfitting parachute jumpsuit to her little French-countryside sweaters, hairnets and pumps, Charlotte is dressed to kill. Still, you have to wonder about a war effort that recruits women for service (here, the Special Operations Executive [SOE]), because they make strident anti-Nazi remarks to strangers on trains. And, you have to wonder about spies who join up because they are determined to find their shot-down RAF pilot boyfriends (in this case, Peter, played by Rupert Penry Jones). Or about French Resistance workers, like the brash and beautiful Julien (Billy Crudup), who are driven mainly by anger against their WWI veteran fathers (here, the wise and stoic Levade, played by Michael Gambon).
So, you get the idea: Gillian Armstrong’s movie is full of clichés and absurdities. Based on Sebastian Faulks’ novel, it’s an almost painfully nostalgic project, more clearly based on WWII movies than WWII events (though the SOE was a real entity, and many women did not come back). Charlotte’s story is full of intrigue and fictional license. Apparently fluent in French (though you’ll never know, because everyone in France speaks English with French-ish accents, except for the Germans, who speak German, in mean tones), the Scots-born Charlotte is a determined, resourceful lass, whose several errors in judgment cause some ruckus, but not so much as the collaborators and the Germans themselves, and so, in the long run, she comes out looking only misguided and perhaps too emotional.
All of this doesn’t make Charlotte Gray a bad movie, necessarily. But it does make it grand, exasperating fiction. Coming hard on the heels of other Greatest Generation fictions like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Pearl Harbor, it’s clearly looking to remind you that men were not the only patriots, and that women did more than forswear pantyhose and rivet airplanes during these difficult years. It’s a noble aim, to make such work visible, and Charlotte Gray is a well-appointed, entirely nostalgic affair. Still, it stretches credulity, strains patience, and eventually, falls flat.
Given the currently surging popularity of WWII-era moral righteousness, it may be worth asking why this version of it does fall flat. Partly, it’s a genre problem. Like many circa-‘40s “women’s pictures,” Charlotte Gray makes fantastic assumptions about gendered interests and doesn’t bother much with plot details. Charlotte’s immersion in the war, as a concept and then a reality, is sudden and improbable. Her affair with Peter happens within minutes: they meet at a party while he’s on leave, they spend every minute of what might be weeks, together in her bedroom, then poof, he’s called back to service. Her decision to go after him is ludicrous: she asks for the France assignment, trains a bit, shooting guns and running drills, then poof, she’s parachuting into cow fields. And her relationship with Julien, is tumultuous to the point of comedy: she learns he’s a communist, fights with him over various non-issues, then sees that he’s really a good sort anyway.
Charlotte also has that ulterior motive, to locate Peter, and so, while she endangers her coworkers, she also resists falling in love with Julien, until she does. The point of revelation comes in a hugely corny moment, when she throws herself on him (big kiss, wild embrace) to shut up his ravings during one of those parades through the streets that movie Nazis seem so fond of making. As her “contact,” Julien assigns Charlotte the task of taking care of two Jewish boys whose parents have been hauled off to a death camp. Seeing her as a good mother, no doubt, warms his heart. Eventually, they share another fake make-out session, undertaken to “fool” a Nazi captor: after several minutes of heavy breathing and unbuttoning, the couple understands that they are fated to be together, and Charlotte finally rethinks her reasons for being in France.
What makes any of this bearable is the film’s clear sense of itself as melodrama: while hardly ironic, it never pretends to be realistic. Still, such big-screen emotionalism, even framed as nostalgia, begs the question of what’s at stake in the genre for today’s viewers. For starters, it appears that doing the right thing is less important than having the right outfit.