Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Allied (2016) - Movie Review

While the popular conception of the period drama is usually confined to stuffy and immaculately dressed stories set in Victorian England, it’s actually far wider in scope than that. It basically applies to any film that is set in a specific time period that isn’t the present: Ouija: Origin Of Evil technically counts as a period piece. In staging the days of old, filmmakers need a certain level of fidelity to the era in which the story is set in order to do what all good films should be capable of and making us believe that what we are seeing isn’t something that was shot a year or two ago.

Sure, some films use that disconnect between the setting and time of release to rather compelling effect like the intentional anachronisms in A Knight’s Tale. But that’s an exception to what would ordinarily be considered the rule: If it’s set in a particular time period and the film relies on the specificity of that period, then adhering to it is probably a good idea. So, what happens when one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers still working today sets out to make a period romance?

The plot: In World War II, Canadian intelligence officer Max (Brad Pitt) is sent to Casablanca on an assassination mission and is teamed up with Marianne (Marion Cotillard), a member of the French Resistance. The two make a connection during their mission, to the point where their cover as a married couple eventually became their actual living condition. However, once news hits that Marianne may be a German spy, Max is tasked with taking care of her if the rumours turn out to be founded.

We’re talking about Robert Zemeckis once again, and naturally the cast listing is primed for Oscar consideration, both in the casting and in the efficacy of the performances. Pitt and Cotillard are basically impeccable as the pretending-to-be-a-married-couple that would eventually become a married couple; Pitt’s quiet aggression offsets Cotillard’s romanticism almost flawlessly, and the fact that this on-screen chemistry is as good as it is kind of makes for a humourous reading nowadays, given the status of Brad Pitt’s real-life relationship at the time of filming and release.

Jared Harris as Max’s superior officer Frank gives some nice grounding to what could have too easily become yet another stereotypically grumbling British official, Lizzy Caplan makes a rather solid impression in her handful of scenes as Max’s sister, and Simon McBurney as Frank’s superior in the Special Operations Executive gives a lot of weight to the big atom bomb that sets the main thrills of the plot in motion.

At its core, even before the questioning of allegiances that the marketing has fixated on, this is a film all about lies and the work that goes into maintaining them. From the very first scene of the film, with Max first setting down in French Morocco, we get Max being detailed about his mission, his cover and the relationship his cover has with Marianne. It reads a lot like the kind of situation most actors find themselves in during their first day on the set, needing to quickly establish rapport with their co-star in order for the filming to work smoothly. Hell, the scene where his character tries to perfect his French accent ends up mirroring a similar scene with Pitt in Inglorious Basterds, only far more straight-faced.

From there, the instant chemistry shown by Max and Marianne carries a lot of the film’s subterfuge-driven drama, especially once the plot starts to delve into the motivations behind the subterfuge and why these lies are being told. However, even with how admittedly clever this film can get at portraying layers of deception, it doesn’t end up going as far as it could have. For a film dealing in murky morality, it ends up playing the actions of the main characters as relatively straight-forward and quite safe considering the intrigue built by the main conflict.

However, more so than its use of fabrication, it’s the more earnest moments of the film that end up resonating with me the most. Even considering how this film came out the same day as La La Land, this is still the most classically romantic film of the season. Zemeckis has brought on his usual suspects behind the scenes like composer Alan Silvestri and cinematographer Don Burgess, and the three of them end up creating some incredibly evocative imagery within the film.

A love scene set in a car in the middle of a tremendous sandstorm, a birthing scene set in a hospital in the midst of an air raid, another love scene set against a phone call that brings that very love into question; it’s almost poetic how this film plays around with the very idea of romance to create some quite romantic moments. In a film surrounded by so much uncertainty, their relationship is shown with purity. Writer Steven Knight may not have that great a track record when it comes to films, but this alone shows that he has a real knack for contrast that Zemeckis and his gang of regulars bring roaring onto the big screen.

Unfortunately, while this film is good at showing contrast within individual scenes, the contrast of those scenes in comparison to each other is far less appealing. Specifically, in how it feels considering the era in which the film is set. Now, classically romantic imagery fits in nicely with the setting, right down to starting this WWII-era love story in Casablanca for its first act, but it seems to come into conflict with the director and his approach to storytelling. Robert Zemeckis has done period pieces before like Forrest Gump, but first and foremost, he is always thinking about where the next stage of cinema will be. The number of his films that broke new ground in terms of visual effects alone shows his modernist mindset.

This ends up spelling trouble for this film as there’s just too much modernization involved to really make the drama stick. A house party that would feel more at home set during the 60’s at the absolute earliest, the dark action thrillers scenes where Max coldly wipes out the traitors and opposing officers, even down to Max’s sister as a character in her own right; it all feels out-of-place when compared to how retro the approach to romance is. That last one sticks out in particular, as she is portrayed as a thinly-veiled lesbian; in all honesty, it feels like it was included just to appease modern political perspectives. I said this during Carol and I’ll say it again: Normalising LGBT relationships is perfectly fine, but not if it involves re-writing history in the process.

All in all, while definitely a valiant effort from Robert Zemeckis, it keeps feeling at odds with itself. The acting is stellar, the writing and production values can create some genuinely beautiful scenes while also doing some nice toying with the lies that are required for the plot to run, but they keep trying to make it more appealing to modern audiences that it ends up clashing with the classical nature of the story and its emotional wavelengths. In short, it’s a film that honestly could have been better than it was, but it’s still a good watch as it is.

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