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Charlotte Gray

(2001) ** Pg-13
121 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Gillian Armstrong. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Rupert Penry-Jones, Anton Lesser.

Charlotte Gray is one of those odd-duck historical fiction films that ignores the scintillating truth and instead spins a frustrating web of simplistic half-truths. With the appropriate panache, audiences won't necesarily care, and director Gillian Armstrong comes close to that mark. Unfortunately, neither she nor star Cate Blanchett can overcome the sogginess that seeps into this curious venture.

Blanchett plays the titular agent for Britain's WWII Special Operations Executive, an undercover outfit serving the allied war effort through smuggling and communications. She finds herself in this curious position after the airman she loves (Rupert Penry Jones) opens up her world (so to speak). Alive with the possibility of making something of herself by serving the war effort, Charlotte becomes doubly motivated when her man disappears behind enemy lines. Fancying that she can save him, she volunteers to spy in France, only to botch her mission from the get-go. Sent by French resistance leader Julien (Billy Crudup) to live in the country with his father (lower-crusty Michael Gambon) and two refugee Jewish boys, Charlotte continues to wreak deadly mayhem upon her own side.

Picturesque (perhaps to a fault) and concerned at least as much with romance as war, the film manages only spurts of suspense and essentially lacks spark. Blanchett, Crudup, and Gambon are all exceptional talents, but all fail to overcome the clunky material, which hardly rings with truth. This tower-of-Babel U.K.-Australia production shot on location in France, England and Scotland delivers iffy accents from a Brit playing a Scot playing a Frenchwoman, numerous Brits playing Frenchmen, and an American playing French, all in English, of course (only the Germans are subtitled). Credit is due to the handsome production for facing up to the unfortunate French collaboration, but the numerous victims of Gray's mistakes die for her romantic fantasy, which seems neither credible nor tasteful.

Given the remarkable exploits of many real female SOE agents, it's difficult to understand why Charlotte Gray must be depicted as such a miserably failed spy, other than to put Blanchett through old-fashioned, swooning, big-screen torture. Despite the insistence of Armstrong and Blanchett that this role is a truly great (and rare) one for a modern actress, it's actually a retro dishonor to the real women of the SOE. Still, there's a perverse curiosity to the palindromic theme that, though the most trivial of human acts can spell disaster in wartime, the despairing tragedies of war may best be answered by the smallest of humane gestures. Any way you look at it, Charlotte Gray depicts the most pyrrhic spy victory this side of Get Smart.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digtal 5.1 Surround

Street date: 7/9/2002

Distributor: Warner Brothers

Warner's disc of Charlotte Gray features a colorful, sharp transfer (with the usual, forgivable hint of edge enhancement) and a suitably impressive Dolby Digital soundtrack.

The fine, non-stop commentary by Gillian Armstrong notes the difference between real locations and matching mock-ups, discusses the agonizing language choice facing the film, and offers a few anecdotes about the cast. Armstrong also answers her critics and touches (too briefly) on the historical perspective, focusing on the French collaboration.

Two brief featurettes (amounting to about seven and a half minutes) round out the disc. The first, "Charlotte Gray: A Village Revisits History" highlights the location of St. Antonin in France, with interview clips of the production team and cast. The second featurette, "Charlotte Gray: Living Through Wartime gives a gloss on the title character, with a similar round-up of interviews including novelist Sebastian Faulks. Remarkably, both featurettes misspell Cate Blanchett's name.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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