CRITICS OVER COFFEE

Charlotte Gray
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, and Michael Gambon
Director:

Gillian Armstrong

Writing credits: Jeremy Brock
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Rated: PG-13
Reviewed By: Gabriel Shanks (G) and Jill Cozzi (J)
Recorded At: New World Coffee, above Lincoln Center, New York City
Coffee Selections: Gabriel: Grand Mocha, Blueberry Muffin, view of the sidewalk

Jill: Grand Coffee, Pecan Bar, comfy seat against the wall

WARNING: Frequent Spoilers Ahead

The resident critics of Cozzi Fan Tutti conducted this après-screening discussion of CHARLOTTE GRAY less than ten minutes after seeing the film, over nice hot coffee in a sparsely crowded coffee shop across the street from the more densely packed Starbucks). It was winter, finally, and mere days before the end of 2001.

G: Okay, what did you think?

J: I thought this was terrific.

G: I thought this was very, very good.

J: It was suspenseful. Great acting.

G: It was great except for the beginning. I thought the exposition was weak, prior to her going into training and getting to France. I thought the romance with the guy was a little trite and cliché. But boy, when it moved into France, and the cinematography just opened up to take in that beautiful landscape...heaven. And Cate Blanchett seemed to really come alive and hit her stride. You know, I think she’s best when she’s playing women with ‘inner strength.’ Like Elizabeth, or even her role in The Shipping News. She’s not as sure-footed when she’s supposed to be a weak, dainty thing.

J: The movie is a two-hour love affair with Cate Blanchett's face.

G: Well, it’s shot in this 1940’s style, where the actress was always presented from the neck up, lit beautifully…

J: …in soft focus, with the hat just so, over the face and that last shot of her glove…

G: Is there any actress working today that you’d rather see doing that kind of role? She can be so expressive. How did you feel about the Jewish children?

J: It seemed to me that they were placed in the screenplay rather gratuitously. It created some giant plot holes, because I gather that the old woman, who they left the children with...they called her “mother.”

G: Oh.

J: So I had the impression that she was Levarde's [Michael Gambon’s character] mother. In which case, if he was Jewish by virtue of his grandparents being Jewish, why wasn’t she?

G: I didn’t notice that. I thought she was just another townswoman.

J: He called her “mother.” Unless that’s just sort of a generic term, but it left me questioning. And I could be wrong about this, but I’m not convinced that the regulation of ¼ Jewish is accurate. I thought Jewish was Jewish to the Germans.

G: I thought Jewish was Jewish, as well. I thought the kids were an emotional button that didn't need pressing. “Look, here’s Cate Blanchett with the children, isn’t she motherly.” And also, it was a pretty transparent attempt to make the film weightier, fulfilling some kind of family angle. The film didn’t need it. I thought the scene with the plane landing at night, with the revolutionaries being ambushed, was much more effective in giving the film weight – I mean, that’s what war’s about.

J: The Jewish angle has been done very well -- elsewhere. Here it was kind of arbitrarily thrown in for "human interest". The whole business where he’s [the Michael Gambon character] on the train – those trains were actually packed. They packed people onto these trains like cattle. In this movie, that was a very empty, very civilized train. If you’re going to do this, do it right.

G: It’s almost like the screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, didn’t trust that Charlotte Gray’s story would be interesting enough, in and of itself. And so he kept throwing in these World War II stock movie clichés into what I thought was a pretty interesting story by itself. What did you think of Gillian Armstrong’s direction?

J: She directed Oscar and Lucinda, right? [Gabriel nods.] Thought so. I can’t really speak to her very much, because I didn’t care for Oscar and Lucinda…mostly because I couldn’t stand Ralph Fiennes. But I thought CHARLOTTE GRAY was beautifully filmed. It was leisurely paced – I think it ran a little longer than it had to. I thought the subplot with the lecherous collaborator teacher was gratuitous…

G: But it was something I’d never really thought about, how anti-Semitism during the war might have been used by people to circumvent social decency and social mores. That was an interesting idea – it seemed an especially sinister use of anti-Semitic belief. Not to say that concentration camps weren’t sinister, but it was, I don’t know, a more refined form of bigotry.

J: I think it would have worked better if the teacher had just appeared there out of the blue. It would have driven home the idea of collaboration. There are some wonderful lines in there about collaboration that I found very timely – that collaboration is the best way to ensure France’s destiny, and Gray’s opening voiceover speech. That of course we are going to win, because we are good. This resonated very clearly for those of us living in John Ashcroft’s Amerikka, which of course everything is about now, or so it seems sometimes.

G: [Laughs] Well, the whole movie is a testament to the idea that “it’s not that simple.” And I think that’s an interesting place for a war movie to resonate from. That Good Versus Evil doesn’t really mean a whole lot. The most powerful scene in the movie to me was when Charlotte made a mistake – she met her female contact in that café, and by delaying three seconds, without even knowing what was happening, she had this woman killed. To me, that shows the grey area that’s so interesting. And that conversation she had in the car with Michael Gambon – who, by the way, clearly deserves a Supporting Actor nomination…

J: I wrote that down in my notes!

G: What a tremendous performance that nobody’s talking about!

J: Yes.

G: But they have that conversation where she says something like, “Do you think it’s possible to commit a sin, or be guilty, when you don’t even know you’re doing it?” And he says, “Of course not.” That’s fascinating.

J: The thing that surprised me most was the level of suspense this film had. The rising tension of the scene in the coffee shop…I don’t know about you, but my shoulders were tensing up just sitting there.

G: It was the moment where I really engaged into the movie. But there were other moments of suspense that didn’t ring true for me: that scene where she and the cop are pointing the guns at each other in the house…I didn’t buy that he would just walk out.

J: That’s the war movie cliché – that the enemy guy is always chicken. There are two bad guy clichés in movies. Number One is: the enemy is always a bad shot. Number Two is: he’s always a chicken. The only movie where that doesn’t happen that I can think of off the top of my head is Saving Private Ryan where Jeremy Davies is in that house...… That was a case where the cliché was turned on its ear. But this movie was a real ‘war movie’ as opposed to a depiction of war – a 1940’s war movie would have had the cop doing that, because she is the heroine and she, therefore, must triumph. It doesn’t ring true. But that’s how this kind of movie is done.

G: There are other moments that don’t ring true – the sappy ending, I was like, okay, if that’s really the way you want this thing to end, whatever.

J: Well, I knew that the other guy was going to turn out okay.

G: Billy Crudup?

J: No, the other guy, the aviator, Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones).

G: Oh. Well, you have to have him back, don't you? She has to make the choice between them.

J: I knew the minute she ended up back in London. Because they left her in France on the mountaintop, and the next thing you know, it’s six months later, and I HATE when they do ‘six months later’…

G: I’m not sure why she stayed.

J: Well, she stayed to go back to the house and do that letter. Which was really, really corny.

G: Yes.

J: That was my Steven Spielberg, I could-have-done-more moment. That was the Schindler's List Memorial Sledgehammer Moment.

G: Jill Cozzi’s famous Emotional Sledgehammer Moment.

J: The Sledgehammer Moment. I hate when they use this when dealing with the Holocaust. They always do this with the Holocaust; they can’t let it just speak for itself. When you’re loading people onto cattlecars without windows –and I think some of these cars had windows –

G: Climate control, air conditioning –

J: And they shouldn’t have. The actual cattlecars should be affecting, in and of themselves. And if the audience is not going to respond to that –

G: But if you’re Gillian Armstrong, you’re kind of caught when making a film like this, that includes the Jewish Holocaust. If you let the horror speak for itself, you run the risk of having critics like you and me bashing the film for being dispassionate. You didn’t care. And if you overblow the moment, then you’re taking away the power of what really happened.

J: But it speaks for itself well. This is my problem with Schindler’s List as well. Where he had this wonderful, suspense-followed-by-relief moment when the showers come on instead of gas; Spielberg then went on to construct that particular moment [Schindler's "I could have saved more" speech] in such a way to ruin it with the Emotional Sledgehammer. As you know, this is a pet peeve of mine with Spielberg; as if he doesn't trust his ability to get his point across. And that’s what you’ve got here. I’m sorry, when the door to the attic where the children are hiding opens, and you see it from the children's point of view– this helmet and then this big, nasty German comes through pointing this gun – if that’s not affecting enough, then you’re missing it.

G: I think the whole subplot of the children is poorly constructed. It seems counterintuitive to a spy in World War II. I mean, I know they’re trying to show that she has motherly instincts, I know why it’s in there –

J: I’m not sure why it’s in there.

G: Well, because a woman should always have motherly instincts, shouldn’t she? Otherwise she’s a hardened bitch. Haven’t you ever seen a Sharon Stone movie?

J: [Laughs] Unless they’re trying to show that she can’t be a woman, even in those fabulous clothes –

G: Oh, we didn’t even talk about those great clothes!

J: -- unless she has this maternal thing going on. I mean, you can’t be feminine AND be a warrior at the same time without doing the maternal thing, too? It doesn’t work for me.

G: Well, this is a movie clearly aimed at a female demographic. She runs the risk of being too masculine, or not being warm enough, or not being appealing enough. And if female audiences can’t see themselves in this role, it’s not gonna work. So for all the suburban moms about there –

J: But the motherly stuff doesn’t work well enough to make me see that. Plus, if you don’t think that Cate Blanchett is feminine enough – even as a warrior, even in that jumpsuit skydiving…

G: She’s walking through German troops looking like she’s walking a Paris runway. I think it was Janty Yates who did the clothes, and they are magnificent. I’m not sure they work in this picture, but they are magnificent outfits. Beautifully period.

J: I think they did work. This whole film is shot like a 1940’s women’s picture. The whole smoky look that she has –

G: Very George Cukor. Very Norma Shearer.

J: -- I kept looking at her and seeing Lauren Bacall.

G: Or Dietrich. I kept going to the war propaganda films, Shearer’s films, spies against the Germans, all that stuff.

J: But there was something about the hair, the outfit. I saw Bacall. What I don’t understand is how the same critics who are hailing The Majestic – clearly a Frank Capra rip-off – are bashing this film, a better copy of 1940’s filmmaking.

G: I agree.

J: You want to see CHARLOTTE GRAY on the big screen, with a very good sound system. I mean, the train wreck was great. This is what women will use to lure guys to see the movie with them. "There’s a train blowing up!"

G: I agree, this is a not a film that’s going to transfer well to video. This is something to see on a big screen.

J: Nor is it going to be as effective at your local small cinema. The problem is, this is a small-theatre story done with big-theatre sound, scope, color –

G: Well, the films it’s imitating, from the 1940’s, were made before television was a force in the world. Those films were never intended to play on a TV set. The filmmakers never thought about watching this on a tiny box. And I don’t think Gillian Armstrong is thinking that way, either. I get tired of films that – Zoolander is the most recent example I can think of – Zoolander is a film that should have gone straight to television. It’s built for television, the jokes are written in television’s rhythms. But CHARLOTTE GRAY is not built for you to watch at home on a video, or even on a DVD.

J: What about the performances?

G: At some point in the movie I flashed on the fact that, here I was, watching the rock star from Almost Famous opposite the Queen from Elizabeth. Blanchett and Crudup are two of the best chameleons of their generation, who can do a wide variety of things. Why isn’t Billy Crudup a star? Is he too dark?

J: Dark does not help…unless you’re British. Watching Gosford Park, though – and this guy does not float my boat, mind you – you realize that Clive Owen is a star.

G: I want him to be the next James Bond.

J: Better than Pierce Brosnan. Bond is supposed to be dark; Bond likes to kill. Brosnan wouldn't want to get his hands dirty. But Clive Owen is a movie star, he just leaps off the screen, leaps off the screen. But Crudup, as good as he is, can come across as somewhat bland. He’s fades off into the background, you almost don’t notice him. He’s very low-key. He’s a terrific performer, but it’s like he’s always the enigmatic one…

G: Oh, I disagree. I think he’s a very interesting actor to watch.

J: Oh, he is, but he’s not flashy.

G: Well no, he’ll never be George Clooney. Clooney is debonair, he’s old school…sort of that classic Dean Martin playboy-slash-movie star.

J: All right, let's wrap this up.

G: You go first.

J: CHARLOTTE GRAY. An excellent, well-done, old-fashioned women’s picture. If you’re going to go retro this season, skip The Majestic and see this. Now is that a blurb whore line or what?

G: That’s a blurb whore line. I’ll throw in there that the secret of the holiday movie season that no one is paying attention to is Michael Gambon’s performance.

J: Good enough for me.

- Jill Cozzi and Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi, Gabriel Shanks and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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