Charlotte Gray

on December 28, 2001 by Wade Major
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   It's a pity that Australian director Gillian Armstrong, who first broke through with 1979's “My Brilliant Career,” has never really enjoyed commercial success commensurate with the critical acclaim heaped on such pictures as “Mrs. Soffel,” “Oscar and Lucinda” and “Little Women.” In “Charlotte Gray” Armstrong's skills--a sharp eye, a deft sense of drama and a canny knack with performers--are again on display, though in this instance both commercial and critical success will likely fall victim to the deficiencies of sub-caliber material.

   Adapted from the Sebastian Faulks novel, “Charlotte Gray” is a decidedly run-of-the-mill World War II adventure-romance about an idealistic Scottish woman who joins the French resistance with the dual aim of helping defeat German occupation while locating her downed RAF boyfriend. Along the way she has obligatory close calls with stony-faced Nazis and develops unexpected feelings for one of her resistance colleagues (Billy Crudup), a passionate young communist who has his own hands full coping with a traditionalist father (Michael Gambon) who shares his son's convictions but not his aims.

   Any further elaboration on the story is pointless, for “Charlotte Gray,” from this point on, goes through the same sloppy motions as virtually every other wartime romance. War is hell, love conquers all and freedom shall prevail.

   It's something of a small but noteworthy consolation that “Charlotte Gray” isn't as catastrophically bad as it could have been. Cursed with a script in which character development is all but non-existent, Armstrong, Blanchett, Crudup and Gambon manage to make tolerable what should have been utterly unwatchable. Blanchett, as always, is a powerfully magnetic presence, lending credibility to the most contrived of scenes with nothing more than a convincing look. She is both lioness and gazelle, equally adept at conveying predatory ferocity and meek resignation whenever such is required. She cannot single-handedly save the ship, but she does a fair job of rescuing the crew.

   A far better effort along the same lines is Frenchman Claude Berri's excellent “Lucie Aubrac,” starring Carole Bouquet and Daniel Auteuil as real-life figures fully endowed with the very passion and courage that “Charlotte Gray” can't seem to provide for its underserved stars. It also makes the point that “Charlotte Gray” and so many similar films overlook, which is that love cannot conquer all. It can only survive it. Starring Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon and John Pierce Jones. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Written by Jeremy Brock. Produced by Sarah Curtis and Douglas Rae. A Warner Bros. release. Period drama. Rated PG-13 for some war related violence, sensuality and brief strong language. Running time: 121 min

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