Our rating: 3 out of 5
Cate Blanchett is such a diversifying actress that to see her in anything is to watch pure poetry in motion. Refusing to allow herself to slide into stereotype, she always chooses strong, dynamic and influential female roles who leave a lingering impression. The character of Charlotte Gray is probably her strongest and most compelling lead since Elizabeth. Set in Nazi-occupied France at the height of World War II, Charlotte Gray is the story of a young woman who joins the French Resistance in the hope of locating and rescuing her missing lover, a RAF pilot.
But what Charlotte finds instead is that there are more important battles to be fought... and that she cannot trust anyone. Traveling to London for purposes of her own, Charlotte Gray (Cate Blanchett) is a quirky, beautiful, and intelligent Scottish girl who speaks French fluently and loves to read. While on the train she is brought into conversation with a gentleman who leaves her his card, and an invitation for her to attend a book gala. At this gala, she makes the acquaintance of Peter Gregory (Rupert Pentry-Jones), a courageous young British pilot soon to be sent into France to fight for the resistance. The two share a few brief but memorable weeks together, and then he is sent to war. After his departure she joins up with the spy force SOE, which uses women as couriers in Nazi-occupied countries. When Peters plane goes down somewhere over the communist south of France, Charlotte asks to be stationed there as a courier. Parachuting down in the dead of night, she is placed under the care of a French communist by the name of Julian (Billy Crudup) while she awaits her English contact. On a trial run, she's assigned to pass off a package to woman in a coffee shop, but her contact is arrested.
Julian also discovers the Jewish parents of two little boys in his building have been taken and sent to concentration camps. The children are taken to the home of his aging father. Charlotte is assigned to the children's care as housekeeper and nanny, while awaiting further orders. But she hasn't forgotten about Peter, and makes one last desperate attempt to locate him. The one vague hope to which she clings may cost her everything. As a spy thriller, Charlotte Gray moves at a measured pace and did little to please the critics, despite excellent performances by Cate Blanchett, Michael Gambon, and Billy Crudup; but as a WWII era romance and a story of courage, conviction, and self-sacrifice, it seems palatable. Not perfect, but pleasing to the eye and with a gripping melodramatic tension. Charlotte is surprisingly two-dimensional; her grief, horror, and fear is very real. The characters are all equally charismatic and several scenes gut-wrenching. The cinematography on this film, along with the haunting music, are utterly beautiful and captivating.
Content-wise, most of the violence is anticipated and not overly graphic or gory. Men mowed down by German machine guns (only implied), and one man is shot at close range. We don't see the actual impact, but blood sprays onto the face of his female companion and his body falls to the ground. The murder is perceived justified because of his earlier actions, attempting to woo a woman against her will and threatening major characters. Explosions wrack train tracks, derailing the train; a man whose jacket is caught on fire is seen escaping from the burning boxcars. A woman is struck in the face with a rifle butt trying to protect two children from Nazis. Language is mild except for three uses of the f-word, and one abuse each of Jesus and Christ. Sensitive viewers should be aware that Jews are seen shipping out in a prison-train, including central characters. Unfortunately, sex is misunderstood for love and we see Charlotte and Peter in bed (obviously undressed) shortly after their first meeting. Julian and Charlotte make out passionately to distract a guard. A plot twist involves attempted sexual blackmail. One of the townsmen knows more about Charlotte and her companions than is wise and implies for favors hell keep quiet. He kisses her passionately and tries to run his hand up her leg under her skirt before she pulls away. Its a pity sensuality interrupts a good plot line with a bittersweet ending.
There's a lot to like about Charlottes character even with her loose sense of morals. One glimpses the truth found in us all... the future is always frightening, but that when the occasion presents itself, even the most meek can find within themselves enough courage to face any situation. I particularly liked her selfless love for the two Jewish boys and the great grief she showed over her faults. Not as diverting as most WWII thrillers, but Charlotte Gray leaves you with something to think about.