Ads for Charlotte Gray headlined Cate Blanchett during the film's release, placing her before the title. There's good reason for that—a promising World War II drama flops on its face and stagnates, leaving Blanchett the only memorable survivor (a vague one at that, amidst the dreamy 1940's scenery). The trailer tempts with dramatic flourishes—intrigue and romance behind enemy lines, only to deliver little more than a forgettable one-night stand buried in banality. So Blanchett was touted for Best Actress in a heavy studio ad campaign—it's the only chance they had to recoup the shooting budget.
Hey, if you were in Warner Brothers marketing, you'd take the same strategy—it worked for Blanchett's Elizabeth a few years previously. Only this film is much weaker and deals with an ordinary woman swept up in extraordinary times. Charlotte is a Scotswoman travelling to London on the train, reading Stendal’s The Red and the Black in the original French, which catches the attention of a British Special Operations executive. Soon she attends a book signing party, hoping to meet “someone” interesting.
She does, of course—handsome Royal Air Force pilot (Rupert Penry-Jones) is on leave, strikes her fancy, and they quickly plunge into a wartime love affair. Buoyed with newfound patriotic spirit (fueled with romantic fancy), Charlotte embarks on espionage training, and pushes for assignment in France after hearing that her lover has been shot down. No matter that French spies have only a 20% survival rate—love conquers all fears.
She parachutes down in Vichy (“Free”) France, where French police “collaborate” with German officials to show their loyalty. Here she hooks up with Communist resistance leader Julien Levade (Billy Crudup), who creates a necessary new cover for her as his father's (Michael Gambon) housekeeper.
With Crudup poised as the male lead, I entered the theater with great hopes—he's a major talent who does great work in Jesus' Son and Almost Famous. Too bad this film saddles him with little to do except play melodramatic stupidity to make Blanchett look better than she really is. To survive and succeed in spying and blowing up trains with the French resistance requires bravery and extreme cleverness, so why does Jeremy Brock's idiotic script have Levade taunting and cursing the arriving Nazi troops right out in public? All the better to allow Blanchett to make a heroic save (shown in the trailer), grabbing Crudup and planting a big smack on his lips. That's about as intense as the chemistry gets between the two even though much more is “supposed” to happen.
Brock does better with Gambon's part, allowing him much more believability. The cranky old man slowly warms to his new house servant and plays the stock role of the older wiser man quite well—more human warmth passes between Gambon and Blanchett platonically than the intended passionate displays with the others. But that may be part of the problem with casting Blanchett—she does unrequited love and platonic love quite well—she was quite good as the ambiguous Thomas Ripley's societal love interest and as Queen Elizabeth.
One day Blanchett may get a part that melts her virginal ice queen formality, but this isn't the film. Note, she does have sex (off screen)—it's not convincing. Even though she desperately seeks entry to France for her man, it all seems staged—she hits her marks, but without true inner feeling. Of course, seeing her huffing and puffing when jogging during training are designed to show her commitment along with her daredevil act of jumping out of a plane, but any trained actor can do a little physical work. It's all in the close-ups where facial expressions either work or don’t. And there's not enough inner passion in Blanchett's face to lift the audience from the mundane story.
Blanchett gets plenty of screen time—she's in virtually every scene. This is the 2001 female version of Cast Away where Blanchett shows a range of emotions, makes mistakes, and plays hero while others (outside of Gambon) might as well be volleyballs—their roles are already so well defined and predictable, so we don't even care when a few fall to the Nazis. No one can blame Blanchett for taking the meaty part. Hollywood usually reserves such parts for box office male stars, so Warner Brothers risks an arthouse label by featuring a strong female lead.
Blanchett does work hard during the two hours. The movie will resonate more strongly with women, who long to see an actress play a strong, independent leading role that doesn't rely on a man. But ask someone who claims to like this film what they enjoyed. If it's been a few days since they've seen Charlotte Gray, it's unlikely that they will remember any more specifics than they can about the last bowl of oatmeal they had.
It's just not enough to warrant sitting through this dreary forgettable sop when there are much better films to see. Not that the film is so terrible—the French countryside is photographed beautifully and Blanchett performs competently. But why go to France to eat gruel when you can have escargot? Come to think of it, a few countryside shots of snails running away from human captors would have created more suspense than this film does. We don't even get a dose of Maurice Chevalier, so rent The Sorrow and the Pity if you're in the mood for a film about the French Resistance.