Film Review: Charlotte Gray (2001)

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

“Is it possible for a person to commit a crime without knowing it”

My abiding memory of seeing Charlotte Gray at the cinema was the much, much belated realisation that I had indeed previously read the book by Sebastian Faulks, it finally clicking about 10 minutes from the end as I realised I knew who she was going to see at the top of the stairs! I did enjoy the film though, even if it didn’t go down particularly well with the rest of the world, for it hits many of my buttons – I love Cate Blanchett, I love wartime stories that focus on women and I love France.

I also love Helen McCrory and she makes a brief, but enormously impactful cameo in this film which was a joy to return to and appreciate, me not being aware of who she was first time round, along with its other various treats. Charlotte Gray is set mainly in Vichy France during World War II where our eponymous heroine, a shy Scottish woman has joined the French Resistance as a covert operative. Her motivations are mixed though as she is determined to find the man for whom she has fallen hard, an RAF pilot, but as the war continues and Charlotte becomes accustomed to life undercover, her priorities begin to change as she learns much more about herself than she ever anticipated, thanks to the attentions of her handsome contact Julien, Billy Crudup, and his father, Michael Gambon in excellent form as Levade and the two Jewish orphans that they are harbouring and to whom she becomes housekeeper.

To the matter in hand though. McCrory shines briefly but brightly as Françoise, a fellow secret agent who has been rumbled as she comes to meet Blanchett’s Gray for the first time. She’s on screen for just a short time and has precious few lines, but her work here is amazing. As the camera stays on her whilst the gendarmes check everyone’s papers is heartbreaking, her elegant cigarette smoking not betraying anything but her eyes howling with pain and frustration with what she knows is coming. Heartbreaking, wonderful stuff. And there’s a raft of thesp treats in the supporting cast too: James Fleet as a shadowy Special Ops recruiter, Abigail Cruttenden as Charlotte’s effervescent flatmate Daisy, Anton Lesser’s vile schoolteacher, Ron Cook, Nicholas Farrell, almost every scene has someone recognisable in it. Only Rupert Penry-Jones’ fresh-faced pilot feels a little off, a little mis-cast as he’s not quite the actor he has become here. And on an amusing sidenote, I went to college will Sophie the slutty telephonist, though she was Sally rather than the Rosanna Lavelle credited here.

In the end, the film is a little bit too neat, too cosy, to really convince as serious stuff. But sometimes soft edges work well: the fate of Levade and the orphans could have hit home much harder but would have felt out of place; Blanchett too often looks fashion-model gorgeous, but it is hardly a trial to watch her rock a selection of amazing hats; but as it all combines to a gorgeously sentimental ending, I forgive it all and cheesy as it may be, I simply adore the final line of the film.

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