Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running Time: 124 mins
Synopsis: In 1942 Casablanca, American spy Max Vatan (Pitt) joins up with Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) to assassinate a prolific Nazi general. Pretending to be husband and wife gives way to real romance, but on their return to London to start a family, it appears Marianne may have ulterior motives for marrying Max.
Robert Zemeckis, the erstwhile genius responsible for classics like Back to the Future and Castaway, seems to be on a bit of a palate cleanser at the moment. After spending a considerable amount of time behind a computer screen, championing the rise of mo-cap and 3D with Beowulf, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, and delivering films of visual panache but empty humanity, he decided to break free and focus on more classical filmmaking. There was the simple alcohol addiction troubles of Flight and the whimsical biopic The Walk, simple stories with terrific central performances, but still finding room for a little technical audacity. The stunning opening plane crash in the former and the vertiginous 3D palm sweater of the titular Walk in the latter. He continues that path once more, albeit with less showiness and success in Allied.
Working in a rare instance from someone elses script, this one hailing from Locke supremo Steven Knight, Allied is very much an old school film, for better and for worse. The first half is quite frankly a little dull. Introducing us to Pitt’s restrained quiet Max and Marion Cotillard’s sexy highly intelligent Marianne, as they fake a marriage in order to get close to a local Nazi general in 40s Casablanca. These scenes are slow and laboured, with the two of them struggling to build a proper erotic charge. Pitt seems too distant and stoic, whereas Cotillard appears to be yearning for someone a lot more energetic and passionate to match herself. There are some treats in Knight’s dialogue but too often Zemeckis directs with such restraint that the film almost falls asleep. Although a scene of the couple making love within a sandstorm as the camera swirls is the most bravura camera move he makes and it just about generates the heat needed to add sizzle to the scene.
It certainly doesn’t help that for a director known so readily for his ability to craft seamless effects, that too often in the Moroccan scenes greenscreen is used poorly. Concerns that the trailer glimpses were simply a work-in-progress proved quite prevalent as it turns out that they were not ‘in the works’ but actual final shots. Perhaps Zemeckis is attempting to ape the old school films of the era with their soundstage work but whereas those covered over that hole with effective production design, here it just takes you out of the moment. Don’t get me wrong the film looks handsome, with detailed costume work and a nice autumnal feel to the cinematography, but it all adds to the overwhelming feeling of stagnation.
As the assassination comes in a hail of Inglourious Basterds style blood and gunfire the film finds its feet. Returning to Britain and subsequently marrying and siring a child, Zemeckis frames the birth within a well realised air raid, making it apt that as a new life begins the film finally finds some life too. It is these latter scenes that the true meat of the plot hones into view. Upon learning via a brilliantly formidable Simon McBurney (one of our finest underrated character actors) that his wife may actually be a German spy, Pitt almost shows some fire. Erupting with anger and denying the charges, he conveys the battle between honouring his military orders and protecting his wife a bit too stolidly, there is none of the barely suppressed intensity that he has previously used in Seven or The Tree of Life.
Zemeckis builds the tension effectively in these later scenes as Pitt begins to investigate the charges himself, against the wishes of his superior played with a stiff upper lipped eloquence by Jared Harris, and allows every scene of the domesticated couple to take on a new element of danger. Cotillard excels here, always a performer of captivating malleability she is hard to read throughout but come the end she is the one who tugs on the heartstrings, and allows the director to lean on his favoured sentimental score heavy endings. It leaves the film on a somewhat downbeat but heartily earned grace note.
It is worth mentioning some of the real odd turns Knight and Zemeckis make in their tale too. A visit to a horrifically scarred former comrade of Pitt shocks with its grotesque make up work but comes out of leftfield and leads to questions about the darker side of Max’s war life that go absolutely nowhere. Lizzy Caplan also shows up in a quite frankly bewildering side role as the lesbian sister of Pitt. The way it focuses on a few brief scenes of her and her lover leads you to believe that the film is about to say something about sexuality in the war years but alas it appears more of an excuse to feature a couple of women kissing. It is a sign of this films’ stateliness that it cannot even make lesbians and horror make-up into anything resembling excitement.
Verdict: Pull yourself through the inert first half and you’ll find a high end ITV sunday night drama. Cotillard shines and the attempts to mirror the classical storytelling of old feel earnest but Allied is sadly lacking in thrills to truly sizzle.