There is an artistic license that we allow films that sweep us along when their emotional resonance is overpowering. Minor plot points that aren’t resolved, or factual errors. For an example of the latter, one need look no further than the Letters of Transit, desired by so many in CASABLANCA. No such thing. Yet it doesn’t matter a whit, not when Bogie and Bergman will always have Paris.
CASABLANCA is an apt starting point when discussing ALLIED, another romance set during World War II. It begins in that storied city, and at one point, Marion Cotillard steps out to a café wearing an ensemble that is an homage to one of Ilse’s ensembles of wide-brimmed chapeau and simple white dress. ALLIED, we are signaled, aims to be a romance of similar proportions and impact. Thanks to Ms Cotillard, it comes very, very close. But a script that regularly comes unaccountably unhinged, and a performance by Pitt that is puzzling, all but put the kaybosh on greatness.
Pitt and Cotillard are Max and Marianne, who meet cute in 1942 when he parachutes into North Africa in order to assassinate the German ambassador in Casablanca. She’s playing the role of his wife, who has been there for several months establishing their cover stories. Part of that cover story is that he is from Paris, although his fluent French has the glaring Quebecois cast of his Canadian nationality. Zut alors. Through quick-thinking they work around that, and in the course of pretending to be joyously reunited lovebirds actually do fall in love. Or is it just the knowledge that they might be facing their last day on earth that moves them to consummate their affections in a car in the middle of a raging desert sandstorm?
Subtle this is not.
A fun thriller, well maybe.
British intelligence does its due diligence with background checks when they decide to marry, and soon the two are both in London, married, expecting a baby, and living a life of delirious conjugal bliss despite the Blitz. Of course it can’t last, and the last two-thirds of the film revolve around a painful 72 hours during which Max will test whether or not Marianne is a German spy, and if she is, execute her himself. The penalty for not doing so is to get himself hanged after someone else executes her. The powers that be are not kidding around. We know this because when Max becomes violently upset about this latest spy mission, the camera cuts to the open desk drawer of the officious Brit in charge, and said Brit reaching for a gun.
Admittedly, watching Marianne through Max’s eyes, seeing things as both suspicious and ordinary is absorbing. Cotillard is all playful passion and smoldering desire. But is she too perfect, cooing over their baby (born out of doors during an air raid, of course), or turning a mushroom hunt on the heath into an assignation in the woods? Such is the intensity Cotillard possesses, and the complexity. Alas, Pitt, who is the epitome of aw shucks heroics in Casablanca, looks like a stricken puppy from the moment his suspicions are raised. The baby would be hard pressed not to notice it. When Max’s sister (Lizzy Caplan), an insouciantly public lesbian in a time when such matters were not, he spills the very secret beans to her. Granted, she’s also in the military, and he’s in emotional extremis, but a questionable move at best.
And so it goes as Max mopes, acting out in ways that are anything but regulation. Add to that a baby that is able to sleep through a raucous party, and an epilogue that is an egregious wallow in sloppy sentiment.
ALLIED is sumptuously realized (that green satin dress Cotillard wears while mowing down Nazis is a showstopper), and the direction by Robert Zemeckis homes in on the emotion with such acuity that the intensity thereof almost carried the day. The mystery of is she or isn’t she works, even if Pitt’s choices distract. Worth seeing, yes? But pitch your expectations accordingly.