Charlotte Gray (2001)

Cynthia Fuchs

... challenges the national ideologies, nostalgia and idealization that have become so commonplace in popular cultural imaginings of the 'great war'.

Charlotte Gray

Director: Gillian Armstrong
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Rupert Penry Jones, Anton Lesser
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2002-01-11

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.






Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.


Jim O'Rourke's Experimental 'Shutting Down Here' Is Big on Technique

Jim O'Rourke's Shutting Down Here is a fine piece of experimental music with a sure hand leading the way. But it's not pushing this music forward with the same propensity as Luc Ferrari or Derek Bailey.


Laraaji Returns to His First Instrument for 'Sun Piano'

The ability to help the listener achieve a certain elevation is something Laraaji can do, at least to some degree, no matter the instrument.


Kristin Hersh Discusses Her Gutsy New Throwing Muses Album

Kristin Hersh thinks influences are a crutch, and chops are a barrier between artists and their truest expressions. We talk about life, music, the pandemic, dissociation, and the energy that courses not from her but through her when she's at her best.


The 10 Best Fleetwood Mac Solo Albums

Fleetwood Mac are the rare group that feature both a fine discography and a successful series of solo LPs from their many members. Here are ten examples of the latter.


Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pays Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.