There is something vaguely comforting about Oscar season. It’s that period between about Mid-September until December 31st where you know roughly what’s going to be in the cinema. You may not know the titles or the cast but, should you swing by the cinema unannounced and uninformed, you’ll probably be able to guess the genres and stories that appear on the listings. You’ll see there’s a period drama, a true story, multiple triumphs-over-adversity, in recent years the odd science fiction, a romance-against-the-odds …and a WW2 drama that most likely features some Nazis.
Some of these movies will be good; films that have clear creative merit and value. Films that will stay with you for years and their Oscar success, although irrelevant in regards to your admiration of the film, will still provide a thrill of well-deserved achievement. Then there’s the other kind. The unflattering term would be ‘Oscar Bait’ – films that seem designed to tick boxes on an Oscar nomination checklist and creak with the desperate desire of academy success. I write this review of ‘Allied’ not knowing what other critics think of the film, yet firmly believing that it belongs in the second kind of Oscar season movie. The film feels so unsubstantial, totally lacking originality and bloated by too much melodrama. It knows what kind of film it wants to be, its influences are worn on its metaphorical sleeve, and yet it just doesn’t get there. It’s a total pastiche of other works, says very little that is new, and mistakes archetypes for characters.
This aspect is apparent from the opening part of the film which starts literally in mid-action as spy Max Varan (Pitt) parachutes into his next mission. And where is that mission taking place? Casablanca. Now, to paraphrase Rick Blaine – ‘of all the cities in all the world, why did it have to take place in this one?’ Already the film sets itself an unachievable standard, seemingly trying to assert itself as akin to the 1942 classic which is arguably the greatest WW2 film there is. In this regard the film is setting itself up for a fall from the outset as it is by no means the ‘next Casablanca’. As we then proceed to watch Max Varan meet his ‘wife’ for the mission – one of the greatest spies in the business, Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard) – and their romance progresses alongside their mission, the inevitable comparisons continue. He, a reserved man, and she, a beautiful woman who also has brains, fulfill their mission and declare their love for each other. They marry, move to London, and have a child. A year of happiness follows until Max is informed by his boss (a scene-stealing Harris) that Marianne may actually be working undercover for the Nazis. Max has 48 hours to confirm is this is the case – if it is then he must kill his wife.
The first act of the film served us a warm-up portion of melodrama, which increases during the second-act, and then completely takes over during the third and final act. We follow Max as he desperately tries to prove the intelligence agencies that the love of his life, mother of his child, is not guilty of the crimes she is being accused of. This means that Pitt has to do various brave and noble deeds to find out the truth. He’s a character we know very little about and this does not really change throughout the film – he belongs to the ‘maverick’ character type – and we watch him disobey his orders which results in his senior office wagging their finger at him. Max Varan’s talents are wide and varied – he seems capable of doing everything and these are as undefined as his personality. He’s portrayed as being of such a high level of perfection and good-at-everything-ness that there is little reason to truly root for him.
Then there’s Cotillard. During the first act in Casablanca she gets to do as much as Pitt’s character. She’s mysterious, seemingly omnipotent and omniscient. She keeps Max in his place as he gets his bearings in his new mission, and is his clear equal in their mission to assassinate a Nazi leader. Then, once she moves to London and becomes a mother, she’s relegated to the home. Pitt then becomes the film’s centre as he runs around trying to work out the truth before occasionally returning home to watch her for clues. This part of the film is a disjointed affair. Whilst tension is created, it’s not necessarily because you truly care about the characters, more than you’d like to know the answers so things can start wrapping up.
The film looks beautiful, the cinematography is stunning, and 1940s London is shown evocatively. The wardrobe is as elegant and refined as to be expected from a period drama of this standard. If only the story hadn’t been as plotting, the characters so undefined and the script so anachronistic. Perhaps this is one that requires multiple viewings to appreciate its grandiosity. Or, more likely, this is a film that set itself unrealistic expectations without the material to match them.
o Dir: Robert Zemeckis
o Scr: Steven Knight
o Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Daniel Betts.
o Prd: Graham King, Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey.
o DOP: Don Burgess
o Music: Alan Silvestri
o Country: United States
o Year: 2016
o Run time: 124 minutes
‘Allied‘ is released in UK cinemas on November 23rd.