Robert Zemeckis (2016)
It’s not Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but it is Casablanca in 1942, and there are Nazis to be dealt with, and playing the “Marseillaise” on the piano is a turning point in the film. And in the end, there’s a plane that she’s going to regret not being on.
It’s Robert Zemeckis’s new World War II film Allied, which features Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, and a classic romantic wartime plot that hearkens back to the heyday of Hollywood dramas. Set in Casablanca and the Moroccan Sahara around it, and in wartime London three quarters of a century ago, this time the sets are largely computer generated, so in fact those aren’t real sand dunes. But they look so real! Zemeckis, known for his use of CGI, with remarkable success in Forest Gump (and remarkable distress in The Polar Express), here uses the effects only to help create the verisimilitude of those earlier times and places (and to do so more cheaply than filming on location would have done). He also uses his camera tricks to smooth out the lines of Pitt’s 50-ish face to make him appear a few decades younger (though there is a kind of strangeness in his eyes—I kept thinking he’d been Botoxed), so that what you get on the big screen is the beautiful people, the Big Hollywood Stars, in their glamorous 1940s threads, like Bogey and Bergman or Gable and Garbo or Olivier and Leigh. In short, Allied is a very old-fashioned movie filmed with contemporary tools.
The film begins with Canadian spy Max Vatan (Pitt) parachuting into the Moroccan desert, where he is picked up by a contact and driven into Casablanca, there to meet his partner, Marianne Beauséjour of the French resistance (Cotillard). She is to pose as his wife (though the two have never met). He finds her in a busy restaurant (no, it’s not Rick’s), where she doesn’t miss a beat when she greets him as her husband, just in from Paris. Vatan is fluent in French, and easily fools Marianne’s dinner companions, though as they leave she chides him for speaking with Québécois accent, which is not going to fool anybody from Paris (a fact that becomes a kind of running joke in the film). She works on his accent while the two live together as man and wife, he sleeping on the roof as, apparently, the men of Casablanca do (“It’s cooler” she tells him). And as they plan the assassination of the German ambassador at a state dinner, Max tests Marianne’s prowess with firearms, and is a bit nervous about her as his partner: “You’ll be O.K. with the Sten on the night, right?” he asks her. She responds, “I’ll be O.K. if I have to use cutlery.”
The mission is dangerous, and the two assassins know that the odds of their both surviving it are not in their favor. That pressure, and the mutual attraction apparent from their first meeting, does bring them together in a steamy scene in a car in the desert on the day of the banquet where they are to kill the ambassador. In the scene, the camera pulls back as the car becomes engulfed in a blinding sandstorm—a powerful visual image of the overwhelming forces by which their love—a fragile bubble amid the storm—is itself engulfed.
Anyone having seen the movie’s trailer knows I am not giving away any spoiler when I mention that Max and Marianne, their first mission completed, get back to London and are married, and Marianne has a baby in a memorable scene during an air raid. But Max’s superior in British Intelligence, Frank Heslop (played by Jared Harris, currently to be seen in the Netflix series The Crown) warns him that the SOE (“Special Operations Executive”) has discovered a leak. I’m not sure what the SOE is, but the way Simon McBurney plays the part of the SOE official, it is apparently the British equivalent of the Gestapo. McBurney tells Max that they have reason to believe his wife is a German spy and has been passing along information that she has learned from him. Max of course, does not believe the charge, but is informed that it will be his duty to execute her if the charges prove true. The rest of the film focuses on this dilemma, and Max’s increasingly desperate efforts to establish Marianne’s innocence—without, of course, informing her of the SOE suspicions—while they try to obtain evidence to convict her. The film hurtles toward a tense climax that will satisfy the realists, and a slightly sappy ending that will appeal to the hopeless romantics in the audience.
The film is nostalgic and, to a large extent, derivative, but only in the best sense, the sense in which imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Zemeckis succeeds in creating a film that is not only an homage to those romantic Casablancas of the past, but a late contribution to the genre in its own right.
This is not to say that the film is perfect. I was unimpressed by the editing of the film—it moved at a very slow pace, particularly at the beginning. The first third of the film also seemed somehow choppy, with scenes following one another without clear transition. This may have been a ploy, since it kept me wondering what was going on, just what the mission was. But I’m not sure what keeping us in the dark about the mission accomplishes.
As for the actors, Cotillard is, as always, pitch perfect, and has us wondering about her loyalties throughout (this kind of confusion does make sense, since the whole point is to figure out whether or not she is a spy). Pitt is less effective, despite the heroic challenge he takes on of acting in French. He tends to be pretty deadpan throughout the film, which might be fitting for the “strong silent type” character he plays, but I couldn’t help feeling that part of it was the Botox-like effect of the anti-aging CGI, wiping not only wrinkles but emotions as well from his whole countenance.
Other than McBurney’s appropriately malevolent turn as the SOE official, the only other actor who has much notable screen time is Harris, who, in contrast with Pitt, registers all the emotions. If there is a chorus character with whom the audience can identify, who views things from outside and registers the audience’s likely reactions, it is Harris, who is appropriately confused and frustrated when we are, and appalled and saddened when we ought to be. He’s not quite the Claude Rains of the picture, because he doesn’t seem to have much agency of his own, but he’s the closest thing Max has to a friend.
On the up side, this film is aimed at actual adults. People talk to each other. It’s not filled with violence—the (rather surprising) R rating is for a relatively mild sex scene. It’s not even “based on a true story” because, dang it, it’s a movie and it’s telling us a story—not an adapted story but one written directly for the screen by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises). All things considered, I’m going to give this one three Tennysons, and suggest you take it in, if you’re willing to take my word for it. Hey, I’m no good at being noble, but…here’s looking at you, kid.