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Charlotte Gray - neither here nor there

Jane Mills

Billy Crudup & Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Gray
Billy Crudup & Cate Blanchett, Charlotte Gray

There’s little I like more than disagreeing with mainstream movie critics, and nothing I like less than writing a review of a film that has contributed nothing to my love of cinema or, in my view, to cinema as a dynamic artform. More bluntly: I don’t see the point of a review that merely endorses or, conversely, negatively criticises a cultural product or artform when the nation’s print media provide so little space for the cultural appreciation of that artform, particularly when its provenance is Australian.

By all accounts, in a column dedicated to critical writing about the Australian screen, I shouldn’t be writing about Gillian Armstrong’s Charlotte Gray at all, since I found it disappointingly nondescript and it’s not even strictly speaking Australian.

It’s impossible, however, to ignore the number of Australians in key creative roles: director Armstrong, editor Nicholas Beauman, director of photography Dion Beebe and star Cate Blanchett. Whether they contributed something specifically ‘Australian’ by virtue of their geocultural backgrounds is, in my view, dubious. But it’s probably why many Australians will see it.

It’s also why I saw it and, while finding it both dull and forced, it offers a useful place from which to enquire into the relationship between the dominant and national cinemas.

The aesthetic contributions of the DOP, editor and lead actor make it possible to avoid the auteurist trap of analysing it only in terms of ‘A Gillian Armstrong’ film. Its mixed production and financial provenance (Scottish, British, US) provide a distance from indulging in either of the two dominant modes of Australian film criticism which Tom O’Regan terms “debunking” and “remythologising” (Australian National Cinema, London & New York: Routledge, 1996).

In her informative monograph, The Films of Gillian Armstrong (The Moving Image, ATOM, St Kilda, 1999), Felicity Collins writes that these 2 modes of criticism result in creating Australian cinema as the “bad” or “good” object. The former longs for our national cinema to resist the gravitational pull of the dominant aesthetic field. The latter, as practiced by Jocelyn Robson and Beverley Zalcock in their book Girls Own Stories: Australian and New Zealand Women’s Films (London: Scarlet, 1997), involves appraising Armstrong’s films as progressive reworkings of classical Hollywood movies.

Charlotte Gray is, potentially, a crowd-puller. A beautiful, young Scottish secretary (who types the words of others—geddit?) is strong-minded and therefore sexually appealing. In 1943, as a result of her liberal, middleclass upbringing, Charlotte has Romantic, Francophile sensibilities: she knows her Stendahl and Proust, despises the Vichy Government and identifies strongly with heroism in the form of the French Resistance.

The quest for her first and only true love gives rise to her desire for self-expression. She volunteers as an agent and is parachuted into occupied France. Here she makes some literally deadly blunders, fails to save 2 winsome young Jewish boys, and falls for a handsome Communist resistance fighter (Billy Crudup). All with fake accents that beggar belief (wouldn’t the Nazis have noticed a group of French people incapable of speaking French?).

The film is not unremittingly awful. I admired the cinematography (Dion Beebe), one of the performances in particular (Anton Lesser), and liked the plot (woman finds her own voice risking life for love as an historically sanctioned terrorist) and the underlying idea (subtly risk-taking, anti-sentimentalising director transforms ultra-safe, sentimental novel).

Many movies have offered less and yet provided far more—Brief Encounter, for example. To be fair, there are also movies that have offered much more and delivered even less—The English Patient springs to mind. Less is often more. This is a lesson that filmmakers ranging from Frances Coppola’s first cut of Apocalypse Now to Rachel Perkins’ recent bittersweet One Night The Moon, seem to know almost instinctively. The concept does not inform Charlotte Gray.

Armstrong is not incapable of subtlety. In Little Women, a film that gives nostalgia a fine name, she successfully resists cliché, wresting the story from its literary roots and, as Collins explains, quietly says something “about cinema’s appropriation of authorship and voice, writing and performance, genre and style.” She can draw upon a knowledge of both dominant and national cinemas to offer films with their “own ways of seeing and thinking and feeling.”

This is not evident in Charlotte Gray, which drums up a storm with Blanchett’s gale force performance of a woman lacking the introspection that we know she can deliver from films such as Elizabeth, Oscar and Lucinda and even The Shipping News (in which she is superb). Blanchett’s solo performance leaves a vacuum in a film requiring an ensemble approach that is rarely filled.

Sebastian Faulks’ novels (Charlotte Gray is the third of a trilogy) are intensely romantic stories written by someone who appears to lack an understanding of Romanticism, which featured new forms and structures, especially those that challenged readers’ traditional expectations. Julien Sorel, the Romantic hero of Stendahl’s The Red and the Black that we see Charlotte reading in the opening sequence, was certainly aware of the void created by his moral indeterminacy (neither black nor white, but grey, you might say).

This spills over into Armstrong’s film with its heroine who claims “good must triumph over evil” but which disconcertingly lacks awareness of its absent moral centre. All that the world-shattering events represented or referred to ever signify is a series of episodes in the pages of Charlotte’s personal book of self-discovery. Both Hollywood and national Australian cinema can achieve more than this.

Charlotte Gray, director Gillian Armstrong, distributor UIP, opens nationally in May

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 16

© Jane Mills; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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