Friday, November 25, 2016

Allied: Does love bind?

Allied (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for violence, profanity, fleeting nudity and brief drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.25.16

At first blush, this feels like an old-style WWII espionage drama of the sort whose absence is lamented by longtime moviegoers — such as my parents — who often grouse that They Don’t Make ’Em Like This Anymore.

Shortly after adopting his cover identity as the devoted husband of Marianne (Marion
Cotillard), Max (Brad Pitt) fears that he may have been recognized by a Nazi officer: a
potential catastrophe that requires a quick solution...
Given the French Moroccan setting, stars with the wattage of Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, and a swooningly romantic script that even name-checks Casablanca, one almost expects Bogie and Bacall to come strolling in from the surrounding desert.

Steven Knight is a terrific screenwriter, with solid experience in the crime and espionage genres; his highlights include 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and 2007’s Eastern Promises. No surprise, then: He delivers a corker of a first act for Allied, and then swings the plot into an unexpected direction that cranks up the suspense.

Unfortunately, things get messy during an contrived third act, which piles eye-rolling coincidence atop unrealistic behavior, the latter from characters who’ve previously been depicted as far too intelligent, to suddenly turn brainless. Cut to a positively eye-rolling epilogue, and the film squanders the considerable good will that it has built.

Seriously, Steven ... what were you thinking?

In fairness, such climactic, over-the-top melodrama also is old-school, so Knight and director Robert Zemeckis obviously knew precisely what they were doing. I’m simply not sure that today’s savvier viewers will be as willing to forgive such theatrical excess, as was the case back in the 1940s and ’50s.

And it’s a shame, because the first 90 minutes are thoroughly compelling, and — yes — luxuriously atmospheric.

The year is 1942, and the film opens as Canadian airman Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes into the desert outside of Casablanca. His emergency mission, orchestrated by the British Special Operations Executive (BSOE): to assassinate Germany’s visiting ambassador. The groundwork for this mission has been established by undercover French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard), who has spent weeks among her Nazi “friends,” waxing eloquent about the beloved husband soon to visit from Paris.

The handsome and affable Max looks and sounds the part ... to a point. As Marianne immediately notices, his carefully rehearsed accent is more Québécois than Parisian, which is a problem: French Moroccans wouldn’t know the difference, but he’d never fool Nazi officials who had spent any time in France.

The suspenseful intensity comes from the necessary role-playing: Despite being total strangers who’ve only just met, outwardly Max and Marianne must appear radiantly in love, behaving as an intimate and established couple, comfortable in each other’s presence. Max isn’t entirely able to accommodate on such short notice, Pitt giving his performance just a trace of awkward reticence, which — in public — Marianne passes off as shyness around so many new people.

In private, in their modest but charming apartment, she delights in correcting him, enhancing his “performance,” and gently mocking him with the nickname “My Québécois.” Cotillard shades these exchanges with just the right blend of coquettish naughtiness and steely eyed censure; after all, one slip, and they’d both get killed.

Max, determined to give as good as he gets, discovers that Marianne’s weapon skills aren’t quite as smooth as she’d have him believe.

The days pass, as the ambassador’s invitation-only event approaches; nervous anticipation increases alongside sexual tension. The banter becomes more playful, particularly when Marianne explains that, in Casablanca, men sleep on the roof — where it’s always cooler — after making love with their wives. And, since Marianne’s nosy neighbors always are watching ... well, best to make the show convincing.

Pitt and Cotillard positively smolder in each other’s company, their star wattage incandescent. His half-smiles are matched by her come-hither eyes; their close proximity screams sensuality. Zemeckis draws just the right inflections from all of the line readings, and Knight’s dialog is consistently droll. We’re well and truly hooked: What will happen to these two people?

In fairness, I can’t even hint at an answer, because this is only the first act. So let’s skip the details, while revealing that the narrative eventually resumes six months later, with Max back in London. Life is grand — insofar as that’s possible, with the blitz an ongoing concern — until one day he is summoned by the cloak-and-dagger “V Section.” After which, Max abruptly realizes that all actions have consequences, often unforeseen.

Knight’s narrative twist is a corker, and it yanks the story into fresh, tension-laden territory: more 1960s-style, Cold War paranoia than WWII-esque espionage. And as dire as the exigency that dictated the earlier assassination mission, the potential consequences here are much, much worse.

Production designer Gary Freeman has his hands full, depicting both 1942 Casablanca and war-torn England. One of the latter establishing shots perfectly conveys the era’s stiff-upper-lip, can-do spirit; cinematographer Don Burgess’ camera sweeps along a typical London street, passersby crunching on broken glass from a demolished storefront, the emporium’s manager defiantly displaying her wares on the sidewalk, a hand-printed sign on her makeshift table proclaiming “Open, as usual.”

That street montage is an example of Zemeckis’ fondness for arresting camera work — a signature indulgence he really displayed, in last year’s The Walk — always to eye-catching impact. Indeed, the opening scene also is an excellent example, Burgess’ camera following Max’s parachute descent from an intriguing angle.

The staging is equally important to the unfolding drama, the first act’s wide-open rooftops and sand dunes a deliberate contrast to London’s cramped, underground offices and claustrophobic interrogation cells. We’ve moved from Casablanca’s war-style derring-do to the uncomfortably oppressive atmosphere of institutional mistrust.

And, as always is the case with a Zemeckis endeavor, the verisimilitude of time and place are absolute, with VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie giving us several harrowing examples of life amidst the London blitz.

Longtime Zemeckis colleague Alan Silvestri delivers a rich orchestral score, with ample love themes and — as necessary — unsettling atmospheric cues.

Pitt and Cotillard dominate the screen and the story, which — ironically — becomes a minor problem. They literally overwhelm most supporting players, some of whom are further hampered by under-developed personalities. Lizzy Caplan is a prominent example, the usually colorful actress given the thankless, useless role of Max’s free-spirited sister, Bridget, who seems to exist solely to exploitatively depict her “scandalous” (for the time) relationship with a Polish cellist girlfriend.

Matthew Goode is almost unrecognizable, in an eye-blink appearance as Guy Sangster, a battlefield casualty with information that Max might find useful; Simon McBurney is appropriately chilly as a stoic interrogator. But at least they make an impression; a dozen or so of Max’s BSOE colleagues, male and female, remain one-dimensional, nameless and faceless.

For the most part, the film loses precious momentum when Pitt and Cotillard aren’t front and center, and Knight’s third-act excesses don’t help.

Ultimately, Allied — nifty double-entendre title, by the way — is two-thirds of a very good film. Alas, we always walk out with the climax uppermost on our minds, and that’s a shame. Pitt and Cotillard — and Max and Marianne — deserved better.

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