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.