Film Review – Allied
Here is yet another instance where trailers and advertisements promise one film and what we get is something else. We’re lead to believe that Robert Zemeckis’ Allied (2016) is a taut thriller about betrayals and lies. What we actually get is a sweeping love story with betrayals and lies assigned to be merely window dressing. Zemeckis (with writer Steven Knight) tries to force romantic ingredients into a premise that begs to be more sinister. The finished product is professionally made, but I can’t help but think that there’s a missed opportunity here.
So what does that mean? Am I reacting to the picture presented in front of me, or reacting to the picture that isn’t? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Our story is set in 1942, right in the heart of the Second World War. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a Canadian intelligence officer assigned to carry out a deadly mission in – of all places – Casablanca. His point of contact is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard). The first act is a doozy. Posing as a happily married couple, Max and Marianne infiltrate enemy lines to assassinate high ranking Nazi officials. The scene plays out like high-end fireworks, Don Burgess’ camera gliding through the action with a smooth effectiveness.
The fact that the plot is set in wartime and starts out in Casablanca should clue us into what Zemeckis is doing. He’s clearly harkening back to an old school, “Golden Age of Hollywood” approach to storytelling. There is a glamorous kind of feel to the faces and textures, even when characters deal with life and death situations. Everything has a gloss; much of the budget appears to have gone to the costumes and set design. If this were the 1940s or 50s, I could see a Cary Grant and a Rosalind Russell playing these parts. Maybe that’s a detriment. At times, the picture feels too polished, too clean, as though everyone involved knew this was a throwback and acted as such.
Zemeckis spends a lengthy amount of time focusing on the romance between Max and Marianne. What starts off as a ruse soon becomes sincere, as the two actually do fall in love and relocate to London to start a family. In the most bizarre (and perhaps most memorable) scene, Marianne gives birth to their child in the middle of an air strike. To avoid the possibility of the hospital collapsing on top of them, Marianne’s bed is dragged out into the middle of street (because that’s safer, I guess). Seeing the chaos of aeronautical warfare juxtaposed with the miracle of birth was horrific and hilarious at the same time.
The main point of tension comes when Max learns from his British superiors that Marianne may be a German spy. If this is proven to be true, Max is ordered to kill her or be seen as a traitor and executed on the spot. This development is ingenious; it opens up a whole array of possibilities to go through. Sadly, Zemeckis and his team decide to go in the safest, most banal direction. Max’s insistence to prove Marianne’s innocence just sucks out all potential for suspense. The pacing during this stretch is languid, taking up the entire second half. Zemeckis tries to put us on the edge of our seats – ala Hitchcock – but there’s such little effort in Max’s doubt of Marianne. This is a noir tale that has none of the desperation required for the genre. As things start to unravel, we start guessing how things will resolve and it would take a feeble mind not to predict outcomes nearly spot on.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are movie stars of the highest order, and they play movie stars here. Cotillard does what she can with Marianne, even though much of what we get is hidden under a layer of mystery. Pitt’s performance is more problematic. He’s at his best when he gets low down and dirty; pushing aside his good looks in favor of his acting chops. As Max, Pitt shifts down into a lower gear, performing with a restrained demeanor. Some might call this “subtle” or “nuanced,” I call it a “severe lack of presence.” Max is placed in such a precarious situation that his mentality should be crumbling around him, but most of the time Pitt’s face is so lifeless that it doesn’t register. He’s at a point where age and experience are now showing on his face, but he doesn’t use it to his benefit. Pitt is better when he expresses himself, not when he holds back.
Allied is not a terrible movie. The production values are great, and the story is interesting if you allow yourself to view it more as a wartime melodrama. As a thriller, it disappoints. This is best seen during the third act, when all the big reveals come out in such a clunky, uneven way that it almost derails the whole narrative. The clash of different tones muddles whatever Allied was trying to be.