Directed by Gillian Armstrong, starring Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Rupert Penry-Jones and James Fleet.
Adapted from the novel by Sebastian Faulks, 'Charlotte Gray' sees Cate Blanchett playing a young Scottish woman who risks her life for some RAF toff, in an adaptation that is often confused as to whether it's a love story set in wartime, or a war story with a love angle.
The film starts with the eponymous heroine being invited to a publishing party by a fellow train-traveller. At the party two things happen; the idea of working as a government intelligence agent is planted in her head, and she meets dashing young RAF pilot Peter Gregory. After a brief but intense love tryst with the pilot, Gray promises to wait for his return from military duty in France. But this is wartime, and pilots are targets. When she discovers that her lover has been shot down in France, Gray resolves to find him. At this point, the most glaring criticism of 'Charlotte Gray' lies in its failure to provide any real sense of placement or entrée into the characters' lives. It comes across as just a brief snapshot in time, and it is this failure to provide a strong character foundation that fatally undermines 'Charlotte Gray'.
Having lost her heart to Gregory, Gray decides to join the Special Operations Executive, an intelligence division which trains young men and women to work as couriers and agents behind enemy lines. Yet, although Charlotte's urge to go to France is borne out on her desire to locate Greogry, the film pays only lip service to the pilot from now on, and instead focuses on Gray's increasing involvement with a band of resistance fighters in the south of France. The humanity of the wartime story is anchored in Gray's role as surrogate guardian to two Jewish boys whose parents have been arrested by the Gestapo. And as the stakes rise, she must do the obligatory soul-searching and reconcile the incongruous paths of heart and head.
The main problem with 'Charlotte Gray' is that it simply never sparks into life. As you would expect, it looks sumptuous and it's technically efficient; but someone must take the fall. That someone is director Gillian Armstrong. Even at crucial points of the narrative, she never succeeds in elevating the thrill factor above 'mildly diverting', while the romance of the piece is hardly of 'Gone With The Wind' vintage. Admittedly, she is failed by a script that is only fitfully engaging, but Armstrong never gets to grips with the main character, with the result that you admire Gray, but you never feel any empathy or great concern for her.
In the title role, Cate Blanchett gives her usual accomplished turn, even though her Scottish accent can only be described as erratic. Ultimately, this will never be cited as the pinnacle of her CV, but Blanchett's range is such that she can paper over the cracks better than most. Elsewhere, Michael Gambon is as dependable as ever, while Billy Crudup further showcases his versatility as the main local resistance leader, Julien Levade.
Armstrong has said the character of Charlotte Gray "offers the best role I've read for a woman in 15 years". Well, maybe on paper, but there's no way this character will be remembered as one of the outstanding screen heroines of the past five years, never mind 15. There's an adaptation of Faulks' best-loved book, 'Birdsong', on the way. Wait for that.