Charlotte Gray

Watch her lips, but don't listen very carefully

By Matthew Sweet
Wednesday 20 February 2002 01:00

After 'Allo 'Allo, whither the French resistance movie? It's not a question Gillian Armstrong seems equipped to answer. In Charlotte Gray, Armstrong's big-screen transposition of the Sebastian Faulks best-seller, Cate Blanchett goes undercover in Vichy France, recruited for her linguistic skills by an agent who spots her in a railway carriage reading Stendahl's The Red and the Black.

Hoping to discover news of her lover (Rupert Penry-Jones), an airman lost over enemy territory, Gray straps on her parachute and goggles, and hurls herself into the dark. But when she hits the ground, the redundancy of her expertise is exposed, as is Armstrong's aversion to anything as toxic to the box-office as a subtitle.

The town of Lavaurette is almost entirely populated by British character actors (Michael Gambon, Jack Shepherd, Anton Lesser) who communicate in phoney Gallicisms. Gambon's performance, as a shrugging, shambling, bottom-lip-jutting patriarch with a genius for celery soup, would not have been less preposterous if he had whipped out a knockwurst concealing the furled canvas of Van Clomp's "Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies". 'Allo, 'Allo made cogent points about the dungheap of clichés accumulated by half a century of Second World War melodramas.

Charlotte Gray is content simply to shovel them listlessly about. To effect its limited appeal to the emotions, it relies on triggering your feelings of horror and pity about the real events to which the film alludes.

There's an expression, coined by Peter Hall, which partly describes this tactic: bumming a ride on the Holocaust. No matter how thin your characters, or underdeveloped your plot, having sneering, jackbooted villains cart off some of your cast to the gas chambers will instantly import unearned gravitas and sobriety.

Charlotte Gray has nothing to say about genocide, the Second World War, or French collaboration, but it is embarrassingly eager to capitalise upon images of its characters rattling to their doom in crammed cattle trucks, to give the impression that the film has moral weight, a discernible reason to exist. The movie's real subject, one upon which it meditates with sycophantic excess, is Cate Blanchett's mouth.

There it is, a thin red smear, intensified with meticulously researched period rouge, trembling, pursing and resettling across the lucent expanse of her face. All other concerns are sublimated to this imperative. Watch her lips move on the screen and marvel. But don't listen very carefully. Not even once.

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