By David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
Not once but twice in Robert Zemeckis’ dreary spy thriller, Allied, Marion Cotillard’s character, an undercover World War II operative, says, “I keep the emotions real. That’s why it works.” Sadly, neither the director nor the cast appear to have absorbed that message in this inert period piece, which suffers from an absence of chemistry between leads Cotillard and Brad Pitt, undercutting the romance on which much of the supposed suspense should hinge. Plodding and pedestrian even in the technical magic that is a Zemeckis trademark, this is a case of a director out of his element with a script that fails to generate much heat.
Pitt’s marquee pull will be Paramount’s best hope of finding an audience. But whether all the noise surrounding the actor’s messy divorce from Angelina Jolie (as well as the unfortunate echoes of the couple’s onscreen duel in Mr. & Mrs. Smith) will help or hurt marketing remains to be seen.
It’s actually somewhat mystifying what drew Pitt to this role, given that finding depth in straight-up romantic drama has never been his strongest suit. (By the Sea, anyone?) There’s also an element of fatigue in watching him return to a WWII setting yet again, having explored the period with such flavorful bad-boy edge in Inglourious Basterds and then revisited it with gruff bravado in the visceral Fury. Stuck here playing a gentleman secret operative from Canada working for the British government’s Special Operations Executive, Pitt gives a constricted, stiffly internalized performance that too often just reads as disengaged.
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The major disappointment, however, is the flaccid screenplay by Steven Knight, who showed such a gift for detailing character and milieu in Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and uncanny skill at building tension with audaciously minimalist means in Locke, which he also directed. Both the dialogue and action set-pieces here lack punch, and while the drama was inspired by a true story, Zemeckis seems less interested in finding emotional authenticity in the scenario than in paying homage to 1940s Hollywood, with Casablanca top of the list.
Allied opens with Max Vatan (Pitt) parachuting into the desert in French Morocco, before being retrieved and delivered to a Casablanca nightclub where he is to meet Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard), the fellow operative assigned to pose as his wife. Their mission is to gain entry to a reception where they will assassinate the German ambassador. As they build up their cover by putting on a show of marital bliss for neighbors and fellow socialites in a Vichy-controlled town crawling with Nazi officers, they begin to develop feelings for one another. Max, in particular, is beguiled by Marianne, so much so that after they complete their mission — rather improbably, without a hitch — he asks her to accompany him to England as his wife.
All this feels somewhat flat and mechanical, and neither Pitt nor Cotillard is terribly persuasive at conveying the smoldering passions that catch Max and Marianne off guard after their initially circumspect interactions. Knight’s lackluster dialogue doesn’t help, nor do faintly ridiculous scenes like one in which they get physical for the first time in a car parked in the Saharan dunes while a massive sandstorm whips the vehicle. (We’re spared the drudgery of them digging out afterwards.) In lighter moments, Marianne works on Max’s accent, drilling him to iron out his French-Canadian pronunciation and sound more Parisian, but as foreplay, this is a yawn.
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To a large extent, Marianne is meant to remain remote. She’s evasive with Max as he questions her about what went wrong when her French Resistance network was exposed, forcing her to flee Paris. That gives Cotillard something more textured to play, but somehow the ambiguity stirs up only minimal intrigue.
Back in London, Max and Marianne settle into cozy domestic life in Hampstead, while he continues to work for the SOE, reporting to Colonel Frank Heslop (Jared Harris). But a year after the birth of their daughter, it emerges that classified information is being leaked to Berlin, causing Max to act against orders to prove the allegations untrue, or face the unthinkable.
Sluggish pacing throughout saps most of the tension, but the real issue is the absence of a solid foundation for the central romance. Since the love between Max and Marianne never generates real sparks, the possibility that their alliance is built on duplicity unfolds in frenetic late-action plotting without much emotional investment. Cotillard is such a magnetic screen presence that she overcomes the odds on occasion, registering some affecting moments that keep us wondering about her enigmatic character’s loyalties. But Pitt has rarely been less interesting.
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This being entirely a two-person show, there’s not much going on around the principals either. Harris has a thankless role, all stiff-upper-lip seriousness and underlying decency; Lizzy Caplan wafts around without much to do as Max’s bohemian sister, mostly draped over her Polish cellist girlfriend; and Matthew Goode gets the stock part of the bitter fallen comrade, seething away behind a mangled face after being left high and dry by the SOE. Simon McBurney brings his usual needling character probe to the emotionless senior SOE official who spells out the agency’s grim findings for Max, and the drastic action that will be required of him, but he’s on and off in a single scene.
The film looks handsome enough, shot by Zemeckis regular Don Burgess in subtly desaturated colors and crafted with stylish period detail by production designer Gary Freeman and costumer Joanna Johnston. The warren of offices at the SOE, with their jaundiced walls, provides a sharp contrast to the elegance and airiness of the Casablanca sets. But the London nighttime air raids, which would appear on paper to hit the sweet spot of a technical wizard like Zemeckis, look distractingly artificial and movie-ish. Then again, a CG Blitz seems appropriate for a drama built on patently fabricated feelings.
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