Cate Blanchett was hot, hot, hot in 2001. Following two critically acclaimed performances in 2000 (Elizabeth and The Talented Mr. Ripley), Ms. Blanchett was seemingly everywhere last year. She appeared in Barry Levinson’s Bandits with Bruce and Billy Bob, as well as a trio of holiday releases — The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Shipping News and Charlotte Gray.
She’s certainly striking — tall and dramatically cheekboned — as well as a fine actor. But, well, overexposure and perhaps overwork have taken their toll, and Blanchett’s latest turns, especially in LOTR and now (although a bit less so), Charlotte Gray, are decidedly less than fantastic. To make matters worse, Charlotte Gray essentially repeats yet another film she made last year, Sally Potter’s torturous The Man Who Cried. In both films, Cate plays a foreign girl adrift in Vichy France, bearing witness to the barbarities of WWII, the Nazi advance, and French collaboration.
The good news is that Charlotte Gray is a far better film than The Man Who Cried, despite the fact that the Aussie actress’s French accent here is as labored as her Russian one in Potter’s film. The better news is that i>Charlotte Gray complicates the moral high ground taken by recent cinematic treatments of WWII, like the uber-popular Saving Private Ryan and the less popular Pearl Harbor, in which the Allies are only the victims of Axis aggression, and their conduct in the war is always righteous.
Blanchett plays the titular Charlotte Gray, a smart-as-a-whip, no-nonsense young British woman with a passion for classic literature and foreign languages (she reads Stendahl in French, wouldn’t you know). After a brief and intense affair with a British pilot, Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry Jones), who is lost somewhere over France, Charlotte decides she cannot sit idly by, and must do what she can for Mother Britain. Well, this isn’t entirely accurate, as what she really hopes to do is go to France, to find Peter herself.
In order to make her love-quest happen, Charlotte enlists in a British women’s unit. The following scenes, which depict her military training and indoctrination into the rules and etiquette of espionage, are the most provocative in the film. This is not only because of the rigorous basic training and cultural education Charlotte and her co-spies must undergo, but also because of the incipient gender politics of the whole situation, which is based on real-life cases of women spies.
Classical patriarchal logic and military tactics have dictated that women were not to be directly involved in warfare. Neither were civilians (or anyone who “looked like” civilians). Indeed, such activities were a source of anxiety for the U.S. during the Viet Nam war, specifically, the Viet Cong’s use of women and children for covert action went against the traditional, “civilized” rules of warfare. But Charlotte Gray demonstrates that we, in the “virtuous” and “moral” West, have not always followed such logic or ideals either. We watch as the Brits teach Charlotte hand-to-hand combat, endurance training, and firearms. In short, we watch the Allies teach her how to kill and then send her behind enemy lines, disguised as a local immigrant from Nazi-occupied Paris, in order to launch their own shadowy machinations.
Once Charlotte arrives in Lezignac, France and meets up with her local rebel leader, Julien (Billy Crudup), things get much more complicated than she had expected. Not only does she slowly fall in love with the handsome insurgent (in the film’s lamest plot device), but as she plies her spy-trade, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell exactly whom she is working for, or what she is being used to do. Espionage is dirty business. Forget nationalistic ideology and all that glory of the motherland hoo-ha — there is nothing moral or ethical about warfare. The most pointed insight of Charlotte Gray is that war is messy, confusing, and violent, and even more so on covert levels. It’s also the best reason to see the film (provided, of course, you can ignore its rather treacly love story), and where it diverges from most recent WWII films.
The obvious reason for the glut of overly celebratory WWII films of the past few years is nostalgia for a time in American life when things like international politics and warfare were clear-cut. During WWII, there were clearly defined “sides”; it was “us” versus “them,” “good” versus “evil.” There were no such certainties during subsequent wars, as in Viet Nam or even the Persian Gulf War, which brought to U.S. public consciousness the concepts of friendly fire and the Gulf War Syndrome.
These differential relationships of nation, and specifically the US, to any war and how that war becomes a part of public conscience also account for the cinematic treatments these conflicts have been given. In Viet Nam war films, there is rarely moral high ground and nothing was ever certain (militarily, politically). In relationship to WWII, on the other hand, “we” have always known our position: we won. And so we have Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor. Every once in a while, though, a movie challenges the merely celebratory treatment WWII has habitually been given in film. This is the case for Charlotte Gray, which resists depicting WWII in easy blacks and whites, and in doing so, challenges the national ideologies, nostalgia, and idealization that have become so commonplace in popular cultural imaginings of the “great war.”