On Screen

'Gray' Matters

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 11, 2002

IN "CHARLOTTE Gray," Charlotte and Peter have fallen in love after a chance meeting at a London book party. And in Gillian Armstrong's luminous, romantically charged movie, their interchange of enraptured glances is so earnest and joyful, it's hard not to get swept up in the emotion yourself.

Unfortunately for the new couple, their love has flowered during wartime. They're in the middle of London, during the Blitz, September, 1942. Charlotte (Cate Blanchett) is a Scot who wants to do whatever she can for the war effort. Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones) is an RAF pilot who has seen more action than he'd like.

As they bask in the afterglow of their first night together, Charlotte playfully teaches Peter how to say "I would like to buy a train ticket" in French.

Shared moments like this are numbered. And Charlotte's French is going to be more crucial than she knows. Peter's next mission, which takes him over French territory, ends badly. He's listed as missing. After hearing word that Peter may have survived, Charlotte, who has just been recruited as a British secret agent, volunteers for a drop-off behind enemy lines in France. Working with the French Resistance, she figures, may lead her to Peter.

"War," says Peter, just before his ill-fated flight, "makes us into people we didn't know we were."

Trained by the British SOE (Special Operations Executive), Charlotte creates a believable "cover." Dyeing her hair and building up a false personal history, she becomes a Frenchwoman, Dominique.

In a village called Lezignac, she's to pass a package to a contact, then wait for further instructions. While there, she intends to conduct her own, romantic mission. She knows where Peter went down, which isn't far from Lezignac.

But after meeting French Resistance fighter Julien Levade (Billy Crudup), Charlotte gets caught up in the resistance work at hand: sabotage of a German train, for one, and posing as a nanny for two Jewish children in Julien's house.

In Nazi-occupied Lezignac, where nothing is safe and every "friend" may be treacherous, Charlotte must tread cautiously. She puts out the word that she's looking for Peter, hoping for the best.

"Charlotte Gray," which Jeremy Brock adapted from Sebastian Faulks's novel, has an intoxicating, old-fashioned feel about it. We are instantly lost in the period, thanks to cinematographer Dion Beebe's almost haloed images and Joseph Bennett's authentic, restrained production design.

Although the French characters speak entirely in English, director Armstrong (who made "My Brilliant Career," "High Tide" and "Oscar and Lucinda") coaxes delicate, high-movie moments out of everyone, including Michael Gambon as Julien's semi-estranged father. And while the story delves into such weighty matters as French complicity during the Nazi era and the callous extermination of Jewish children, Armstrong never loses sight of the romance at the heart of all this.

Blanchett, who gets better with every performance, takes hold of this movie with a firm but subtle hand. Charmingly unencumbered in her love for Peter at first, she becomes more steely as the war's demands increase. But as she grows stronger, she also develops a higher appreciation for love. And her evolution into something of a moral warrior is the movie's great trump card. Maybe those old grouse pots who complain that no one makes movies like they used to are right. But "Charlotte Gray" is a step in the right direction.

CHARLOTTE GRAY (PG-13, 120 minutes)Contains war-related violence, sexual situations, and some strong language. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company