Whether you're designing a football play, constructing a building or plotting a military maneuver in battle, a central design or plan that's structurally sound and that everyone believes in is crucial for success. The same holds true in movies. While various elements can stand out on their own, there needs to be a credible and strong foundation beneath it all if the film is going to be any good.
Case in point is "Charlotte Gray," an old-fashioned romantic war drama that could have been a terrific picture. Working from Sebastian Faulks' novel of the same name, screenwriter Jeremy Brock ("Mrs. Brown") and director Gillian Armstrong ("Oscar and Lucinda," "Little Women") tell a fictionalized tale of the little known, but real life Special Operations Executive. That was a 1940s British endeavor that included training ordinary folk to participate in clandestine operations in German-occupied Europe.
Despite WWII being covered in the movies in about every way imaginable and then some, tales about the SOE aren't overly abundant. That's particular true with a female as the central character. Thus, this film has some potential despite sounding a bit like the 1992 Melanie Griffith war drama "Shining Through."
Yet, while it has its moments and certainly looks terrific thanks to cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Holy Smoke," "Crush"), there's a huge, underlying crack in its structure that makes the whole thing rather wobbly and unlikely to pass inspection from more critical cinematic inspectors.
As told here, the titular character joins the SOE partially because she wants to be brave in her life. The real reason for her joining, however, is something of a covert mission to find her RAF lover who's been shot down somewhere over France. Beyond the illogical and absurd elements related to all of that - after all, France isn't exactly small enough to explore by foot and the place at the time was crawling with Nazis unsympathetic to rekindled love - one could buy into that premise if one thing were present.
Namely, that's that we'd believe in that love so much and desperately want the two to be reunited that we'd throw all caution to the wind and rush into the fire just like the heroine. Unfortunately, Charlotte's apparent several night sexual fling with the British flyboy comes off as nothing more than just that.
Given little time to grow - the two are barely shown together outside of bed -- let alone develop into something viewers could wrap their arms and hearts around, that "love" feels contrived in a movie catalyst sort of way. In essence, it's present simply to kick start the movie and get it rolling forward.
Some may argue - as usual - that it's not the destination but the journey that's important here, in that Charlotte grows as a person based on how she reacts to what she encounters along the way. That's all fine and dandy in concept and there's obviously some truth to that, but since her whole reason for being there and doing what she's doing feels nothing short of contrived, the film's tone and basic theme are undermined.
It certainly doesn't help that the film suffers from other problems that build on that first one. Notwithstanding that lead actress Cate Blanchett ("The Shipping News," "Bandits") is far too striking to blend in with the locals in her spy role, that her Scottish sounds English and that for a film set in France (where that language is a key element in play) no one speaks any French - granted, a common complaint for English films set in Europe - the most glaring problem is that the proceedings are exceedingly bland when not predictable, melodramatic or just plain unlikely or idiotic.
Without much tangible passion from the characters, story or filmmakers, the picture feels quite flat. Although the film's visuals and Blanchett's presence and performance certainly prevent the film from being torturous to sit through, the whole thing lacks the requisite spark or oomph to make the proceedings interesting, let alone sizzle like they should.
After all, a tale of a desperate and love struck woman working as a spy behind enemy lines searching for her lover should be exciting to some degree. Unfortunately, it's not, due in part to a plot that's not very well developed or engaging. Since we've seen much of the behind Nazi lines material in other war dramas - including the obligatory resistance activities and the locals trying to get on with their lives while their Jewish neighbors are rounded up - the film's offerings come across as a bit too familiar here.
When combined with the inevitable melodrama and credibility-straining developments - particularly a late in the game scene involving Charlotte, a typewriter and her race to draft a letter before the Germans find her - the film simply doesn't work that well.
Nor does the chemistry - whether antagonistic or potentially romantic - between Blanchett's character and the French communist one played by Billy Crudup ("Almost Famous," "Waking the Dead"). Since that's something of another key factor for the film's potential success - as part of that whole important journey theme - it's just another area where the film comes off as bland when not failing altogether.
Supporting performances are decent but generally don't do much for the film, with the exception involving Michael Gambon ("Gosford Park," "The Insider") delivering a terrific take as a gruff old man who puts up with his rebel son and grows ever fonder of Charlotte. Other performances from the likes of Rupert Penry-Jones ("Still Crazy," "Hilary and Jackie"), Ron Cook ("Chocolat," "Quills") and Anton Lesser ("Fairytale: A True Story," "The Missionary") are generally okay.
Although some diehard romantics might be swept away by the film's old-fashioned, dramatic romance angle, its various problems are likely to prevent most viewers from falling under the spell of this mostly disappointingly and surprisingly flat offering. "Charlotte Gray" thus rates as just a 4 out of 10.