Charlotte Gray (15) <br></br> Don't Say A Word (15) <br></br> Bangkok Dangerous (18)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

So much promise orbits the romantic drama Charlotte Gray, it's hard to see how it can fail. Adapted from the best-selling novel by Sebastian Faulks, its story of love and betrayal in Vichy France has the classic throwback appeal of rousing wartime dramas such as Casablanca and Passage to Marseilles. It has a director, Gillian Armstrong, whose shrewd and graceful handling of literary material goes as far back as My Brilliant Career in 1979. To clinch it all, it stars Cate Blanchett, possibly the most accomplished and certainly the most fashionable actress of the moment. The result? Well, not an outright failure, but far from a triumph. Something has gone amiss, because the qualities that seduced readers of the book – passion, subtlety, a sense of danger – are nowhere discoverable here.

Blanchett has said in a television interview that she'd never encountered such a persuasive psychological portrait of a woman as in Faulks's Charlotte Gray. Very little of Jeremy Brock's screenplay conveys any sort of character at all. Blanchett's chameleon versatility allows her to slip into the period look (1943-44), though once she's recruited by the SOE and parachuted into enemy France the film's claims on plausibility gradually evaporate. For one thing, everybody is required to speak an 'Allo 'Allo French-fried English, making a nonsense of Charlotte's supposed fluency in the language: couldn't the film-makers have shown some nerve and used subtitles? For another, it is not made sufficiently clear what Charlotte is meant to be doing in the drab provincial town where she hides in plain sight. Her private agenda – to seek news of her RAF pilot lover, missing in action somewhere over France – is overtaken by her duties as an auxiliary to the Resistance: one night she accompanies a unit as they sabotage a munitions train, but takes no part. The next morning the unit leader Julien (Billy Crudup, a handsome blank) tells her, "You did a good job last night." Er, how's that?

There are signs of life in the margins, where Ron Cook as her morose SOE contact and Michael Gambon as Julien's laconic father do good, unshowy work in smaller roles. Yet the film never manages to shake a sluggish atmosphere of inconsequence. Charlotte pedals furiously on her bicycle down country lanes, yet always seems to miss the vital moment. Even the subplot, in which she becomes entangled with the fate of two Jewish boys, is a pale reproduction of the novel's high drama; we ought to be excited by her last-gasp mission of mercy, yet Gillian Armstrong's grasp of pace and tension feels uncertain, and the sequence curiously inert. However much Blanchett connected with the novel's Charlotte, she never really achieves the necessary passion and authority here, and one can feel the movie slumping around her. It must have seemed a fine idea at the time; sadly, it looks like a missed opportunity now.

Michael Douglas plays another of his neurotic supermen in Don't Say A Word, a thriller with what must be called an expense-account attitude to credibility. A ruthless gang of jewel thieves kidnap the daughter of a top New York psychiatrist (Douglas) and blackmail him into coaxing out a vital bit of information from a young woman (Brittany Murphy) who may or may not be faking catatonia. Meanwhile, his wife (Famke Janssen) lies in bed with a broken leg while the thieves keep watch, and a cop (Jennifer Esposito) investigating a floater in the Hudson is diligently putting together the jigsaw of the plot. Are you with this so far? The set-up, reminiscent of the Mel Gibson vehicle Ransom, preys on privileged New Yorkers' fear of a rapacious underclass, here represented by gang leader Sean Bean, all narrowed eyes and "cruel" British accent. Director Gary Fleder shoots the action over a gunmetal-drab Thanksgiving in Manhattan, vainly trying to invest a bit of grit into the proceedings, but quite unable to curb the plot's sky-rocketing preposterousness. Try not to "tsk" too loudly as Douglas steals a police car, a mobile phone and a speedboat en route to the climactic showdown, during which Bean gets to say the line, "Can you imagine what will happen if this is bullshit?" A bit late for that, pal.

From its opening credits – dark, viscous blood pooling over a men's-room floor – Bangkok Dangerous gives you fair warning of an unregenerate ferocity. Written and directed by the Pang brothers, it pushes the mythic figure of the laconic gunman to its limit.

Along the way, the Pangs acknowledge action master John Woo (mucho slo-mo) and show off a style of their own – switching from monochrome to colour, hyperkinetic movement and bizarre lighting. I'm not sure that there's much to it beneath the surface, but that surface has quite a dazzle.