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World War II is a seemingly endless fountain of ideas for stories, based on real life or otherwise, and some of the best films in all of cinema have used it as setting for drama, horror, comedy, and even romance. While many put their efforts into detailing the fury of combat, others paint pictures of the people behind the fighting, revealing how it wasn’t just a war waged by soldiers. With Allied, we harken back a bit to the golden age of Hollywood war stories, an homage of sorts to Casablanca and a time when snappy dialogue and intrigue was just as important as the spark between the two leads. For the most part, it works, though is far from a classic, but elevated greatly by its performances.
It begins with a stirring opening image as Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a Royal Canadian Air Force intelligence officer slowly drifting into frame, parachuting his way into a sea of sand in the deserts of French Morocco. It is 1943 and he has come to Casablanca posing as the husband of Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French resistance fighter who has made many Nazi contacts in the city. Their job is to assassinate the German ambassador, and it is through her efforts they become invited to a party where they can strike.
The two are professionals and agree that a romance between them is to be avoided, as emotions could very well compromise the mission, but there is no denying their attraction from the moment they meet. On the day of the party, they drive into the desert and during a metaphorical sandstorm, cave and make love in the back seat of their sedan. Unexpectedly though, this does not weaken their partnership but rather enhances it, and their mission is committed without flaw. Yet a year later, when they have escaped to London, married, and had a child, Max is told some disheartening news: there is evidence to suggest that the real Marianne Beausejour was killed years before and that the woman Max married is in fact a German spy. With no other choice, Max is ordered to plant material that a real spy would take, and if she does, kill her.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Allied does not hide from its influences, but embraces the look and feel with an added sense of fantasy. Nothing truly feels authentic, nor does it strive to be, much like its 1950s pedigree. Colors are saturated and lighting is sallow and intense, casting deep shadows and glowing edges. And the dialogue is sharp, fast, and delivered with flare. It was written by Steven Knight, who knows a thing or two about a script with twists, having penned 2002’s Pretty Little Things and 2007’s Eastern Promises, and here he loads it up with plenty, playing into the set up of the second half well. While the film is much more erotic and curse-heavy than those it pays tribute to, and Zemeckis plays a little often into audiences hands, it’s never manipulative or obvious and keeps us guessing to the end, just as it should.
All that is buoyed by Pitt and Cotillard, who are, like their silver-screen counterparts, impossibly good-looking and yet almost entirely the reason the film remains so watchable. Pitt, now in his fourth World War II era film (I’m counting Seven Years in Tibet), is quite comfortable in the lead, and while he’s never been much for range, is always a comfort to watch, that stoic, iron-jawed confidence a reassuring presence. But it’s Cotillard who easily steals the show, enchanting and graceful, she is the heart of the story, and while Zemeckis may play a bit with the guessing game, she does not. She carries the film.
Allied runs like clockwork, with every gear polished to perfection. There are few surprises and yet with the talent and experience on both sides of the camera working in sync, the movie ticks along with surprising effectiveness. It doesn’t break any new ground, and might have been better with a bit more darkness, and more investment in the backstory, but this is about the ending rather than the middle.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard
Genre: War, Thriller
Language: English, French, German