A Scottish woman goes undercover to help the French Resistance during World War II, motivated partly by her duty to her country but mostly by her desire to find her lost love who was shot down over France. Her experiences in Nazi-occupied France, however, change her life forever.
As WWII rages in Europe, strong-willed Scotswoman Charlotte Gray (Cate Blanchett) travels to London to help in the war effort. At a party, she meets Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones), a Royal Air Force pilot on leave, and they fall deeply in love. Unfortunately, Peter is sent back into service and is shot down during a routine flight over France. It's reported he could possibly be hiding with the French Resistance. Upon hearing the news, Charlotte, who has been training as a secret agent to help the Resistance, accepts a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in hopes of finding Peter. Of course, once she gets to France and begins to assimilate into the lives of the fearless resistance fighters, including the valiant Julien (Billy Crudup), her heart is taken over by the plight of those fighting against the Nazis. Even after she thinks Peter has been killed, Charlotte decides to stay in France and gets even more involved, especially in the lives of two little Jewish boys whom Julien rescues when their parents are deported. Julien and Charlotte bond and along with Julien's father, Levarde (Michael Gambon), they end up fighting for the boys'--and their own--lives.
Blanchett has got to be one tired actress. She appeared in no less than five movies in 2001, including Bandits, The Shipping News, Lord of the Rings, and she also had a baby. Unfortunately, Blanchett's performance in Charlotte shows the wear and tear. Although a more than decent effort (Blanchett probably could never turn in a bad performance), it almost seems like an afterthought. She slaps on a perfect accent--Scottish, in this case--and goes through the motions. On the other hand, Crudup does an admirable job as the brave Julien, doing a 180-degree turn from his last performance as a rock-and-roll guitarist in Almost Famous. His character isn't given a whole lot to work with, but Crudup manages to carve out an interesting study of a man fighting for freedom. As Julien's father, British actor Gambon (Gosford Park) is the one who truly shines. His subtle performance as an older French man who once fought for his country but now feels ambivalent towards it is brilliant. His quiet scenes with Blanchett are the best of the movie.
Based on the best-selling novel by Sebastian Faulks, Australian director Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda) and Blanchett team up once again to bring this story to the big screen. The film adequately shows a Nazi-occupied France, where potential danger lurks around every corner and no one can be trusted. Armstrong also gives us a deeply lush film, with spectacular vistas of the French countryside, and follows her pattern of directing slow, methodical character studies. Unfortunately, we've seen this story done a thousand times before, and done much better. The book is probably fascinating, delving into the mind of this fearless woman who feels she can make a difference. Yet, the big-screen adaptation seems to meander from one story structure to another. First, it's a love story, then it's a war story, and then it's a Holocaust story. Every aspect of how WWII played out is touched upon, but without enough depth to convince you to care. There are a few moving moments but you're left fidgeting in your seat, simply waiting to see if Charlotte makes it out of France alive or not.
Charlotte Gray is a beautiful film to watch but pretty pictures do not make a compelling film.