Unfortunately, the personal story is not that interesting
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
There is some genuinely compelling drama in Allied, a romantic espionage thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as secret agents in World War II. And there’s undeniable pleasure to be had in the tailored suits, tense showdowns with Nazis and cloak-and-dagger antics.
Unfortunately, Allied stumbles as a result of the uneven talents of its stars, and its tendency to reduce the epic clash of ideologies to a question of personal loyalty.
Allied has been marketed as a “true story.” In fact, it is loosely adapted from the ostensibly true account of scriptwriter Steven Knight’s English girlfriend, whose brother served in the British Special Operation Executive during World War II. Spoilers follow.
Brad Pitt’s character, Max Vatan, is a Canadian secret agent parachuted into Casablanca to assassinate the German ambassador. He quickly unites with his local contact, resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour, played by French actress Marion Cotillard. She must pose as his wife.
Cotillard’s character is delightful and cunningly observant, breathing life into every scene with her playful provocations. “I keep the emotions real,” she explains early on as her method for deceiving the Nazis.
Pitt’s character, however, falls flat as a wooden tough-but-quiet guy who exhibits little of his counterpart’s charisma.
You could argue that a real secret agent might also be guarded and unavailable, but the rest of the film is clearly driven more by style and drama than realism, and Pitt’s dourness offers little to entertain or entice. Those scrutinizing the film for marriage-shattering sparks will leave disappointed.
Vatan, incidentally, is supposedly a French Canadian masquerading as a Frenchman — but Pitt speaks French with such a strong American accent the notion he could pass as a native speaker is risible. The filmmakers seem aware of this, as Vatan spends most of the first act trying to speak as little as possible in public.
Inevitably, Max and Marianne fall for each other, and the former whisks his lover back to England, where she becomes a housewife and the mother of his child. But years later, Max’s superiors confront him with strong evidence that Marianne is in fact a Nazi double agent.
Supposedly, there is an “Intimate Betrayal Rule” requiring Max to personally execute his lover if she is confirmed to be an enemy a spy — or he himself could be held for treason.
This well foreshadowed twist energizes the film’s second half with real drama, and Pitt’s anguish as he tries desperately to exonerate Marianne brings new life to his character. Marianne’s effortless charm — and demonstrated ability to deceive — keeps her motives uncertain right until the end.
Director Robert Zemekis skillfully ratchets up the tension and unbearable ambiguity in several set pieces throughout the film.
Zemekis also captures the ambiance of colonial Casablanca and wartime London with a steady cinematic eye. The film flourishes authentic details such as Sten submachine guns — cheap, mass-produced weapons distributed in large quantities to commandos and resistance fighters — and the Lysander liaison planes that inserted secret agents into Occupied Europe.
The peculiar culture of wartime London — where North American service men and women were famously “Over Fed, Over Paid, Over Sexed and Over Here” — is evoked in raucous parties interrupted by routine air raids.
There is even a nod to the lesbian culture that flourished during World War II as a result of the mass mobilization of women, in the person of Vatan’s sister Bridget, played by Lizzy Caplan.
Allied indulges in occasional scenes of action heroism and is guilty of over-milking the drama at times. It is not enough that Marianne must give birth during a German air raid, but she must do so outside while Messerschmitts buzz low overhead, cannons chattering.
Despite overt nods to Casablanca and The English Patient, Allied ducks away from engaging with the politics of fascism and colonialism that were prominent in those works.
Mustache-twirling Nazis and their bourgeois Vichy French collaborators are treated as interchangeable bad guys. The ideology that motivated them, and those who opposed them, is glossed over. Merely hinting at the ugliness of the Vichy regime would have added gravitas and consequence to the heroes’ actions.
Wartime London hangs together better, even if its promising supporting characters are little developed. The film briefly acknowledges the heavy losses suffered by resistance agents and British spies — but again refrains from delving into the psychology of why those men and women undertook such unimaginable risks.
This tendency to treat the war as stage dressing is at its worst in the film’s emotional conclusion. Allied eschews questions of ideology and sketches a personal conflict between two practitioners of deception, a Mr. & Mrs. Smith infused with seriousness and historical pedigree.
In doing so, it avoids asking much darker and more provocative questions as to why thousands of agents on both sides committed countless betrayals of their countries, ideologies and loved ones in a conflict whose brutality was beyond compare.
Allied serves up stylish period locales and crackling suspense in its best scenes. Marion Cotillard even brings some sizzle to Brad Pitt’s damp fuse.
But though it casts its gaze on the shadowy world of espionage that claimed thousands of lives during World War II, it shies away from illuminating what motivated the members of those secret armies to risk all in their struggle against Fascism — or for it.