There's a rush of war films just now, and they fall into two camps. The first is the post-Saving Private Ryan breed of visceral, vérité-style adventure, with Black Hawk Down one of the most extreme examples yet. The second is full of retro numbers, old-fashioned yarns in which people mostly die off-camera and everyone is terribly polite. Charlotte Gray falls into the latter category. Like last year's Enigma, it's a "prestige production" - fine director, classy actors, a literary source (Sebastian Faulks' novel) - and like Enigma, it fires blanks.
Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Charlotte, a Scot who signs up for spy duty when her lover is shot down over France. In her time off from helping the Resistance, Charlotte plans to find her man - which pretty much sums up her naivety.
Of course, no sooner has she parachuted in and adopted her French identity, than everything goes wrong: her old contact is captured, her new contact is a drunk, and her Resistance chums are about to be betrayed. Then she falls in love with dashing Resistance leader Julien (Billy Crudup).
It's bad enough that Charlotte Gray is plotted-by-numbers, but Gillian Armstrong, the talented director behind Oscar And Lucinda and Little Women, clearly has no idea how to enliven the material. Even worse, she has mysteriously declined to cast a single French actor or actress: a preposterous snub that lends the film a smothering artifice.
Crudup and Michael Gambon overcome miscasting with quiet skill and dignity, but the normally note-perfect Blanchett flounders desperately. Not only does she emote at the drop of a beret, but she's too calculating by half. So much so that when Charlotte exclaims, "I don't think I know what I'm doing here any more", you know exactly what she means.
If anyone doubted that the BBC Drama approach to war films was redundant, Charlotte Gray should settle the argument. After Band Of Brothers there's no going back.
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