I’m a sucker for period-piece war flicks. From Fury to Inglourious Basterds to Saving Private Ryan, there are so many classic depictions of wartime life and sometimes even romance. This film in particular acts as a romantic and suspenseful film with the backdrop of the terrible atrocities surrounding World War II. This film also serves as the return of Robert Zemeckis after last year’s terrifically entertaining The Walk with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Is Zemeckis at the top of his game? Is it awkward that Brad Pitt is playing a Canadian? And… wait, is that Lizzy Caplan playing a lesbian?
The plot concerns the story of a Canadian intelligence officer named Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), who travels to Casablanca in French Morocco on a mission to assassinate a German ambassador and underling to Adolf Hitler. En route, he meets up with a French resistance fighter, Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard). Together they pose as husband and wife and slowly their “affection” turns into the real deal and they eventually return to London and get married. This is where it gets complicated though as time passes and one of Max’s superiors reveals that they believe Marianne to be a German spy. In 72 hours, Max will be forced to execute her if she is found to be in cahoots with the Nazis. If Max is found to conspire with her in any way, he will also be killed. The race is on as Max tries to find out what is truly going on – could his lovely wife really be a German spy?
The film is basically split up into two sections. All the stuff that happens before we learn that Marianne may or may not be a German spy and everything afterwards. I wasn’t staring at my watch or anything (which is a pretty big compliment as the film is quite long but never feels like it’s a slog to watch) but it felt like the set-up took up a larger chunk of the film than it should have considering that the main inciting incident doesn’t occur for quite a while. That is a very minor flaw though because the pacing of the film is one of its greatest qualities. In the beginning, it simply acts as a spy thriller and there is tons of tension created whenever Pitt & Cotillard are on-screen with any other character and we fear their cover getting potentially blown at any given moment. This is another thing that the film succeeds at with flying colours: high suspense. In one particular scene in which they meet with their intended target, he seems to question Max’s background and has him subtly prove who he is in a unique manner. Another one in the first half of the film involves Max dealing with a German officer who may have noticed/recognized him while undercover. It has a particularly nasty aftermath.
The romance itself is obviously a key part of the movie so thankfully both lead actors have some pretty strong chemistry together. Even in the opening moments of the film when they barely know each other, you can already feel that they are destined to fall in love at some point. As Marianne leads Max by the hand and helps him to fit in with their undercover alias, you get the idea that the attraction is building and it’s mostly due to subtle facial reactions and suggestions that she makes that seem to indicate that it may not all be for show. Pitt is a strong actor in most everything he does and continues to light up the screen with his quiet charisma and boyish good looks. Marion is twofold: a very sexy, young-looking actress but she also has a certain warmth about her that makes the viewer form a connection to her no matter the film. We don’t want her to be a turncoat because she is so likeable so the film’s strength lies in our prayers for a positive resolution.
Much like several other war films, there are some strong scenes involving violence and blood here but they are fewer and further between than usual. We get more emphasis on the suspense leading up to the assassination in the first half and the suspense of Max trying to solve the mystery behind the supposed German spy qualities of his wife in the second half. However, there is a big violent scene in a ballroom and it stands out so much because of all the calm quietness in the rest of the film. In that particular scene and a later one involving a very key meeting with a prison inmate, the violence is shocking and abrupt. It is not glamourized or “fun” in any way but yet entertaining at the same time (if that makes sense). There are also several other high-octane sequences like a wild house party going on at the same time as a crazy air raid, which also gives us a terrific visual afterwards involving Max, Marianne and their infant daughter having a picnic with a fallen plane covered by the Union Jack.
I almost felt like I was watching an older Hollywood movie from the 40s or 50s at times albeit with way more violence than they could have put on-screen during that era. It is a throwback to wild parties, lavish costumes and slow-burn leading up to the film’s resolution. That combined with the wonderful performances, high-octane action sequences, nail-biting suspense and a thrilling conclusion all result in a film that was much better than it has been reported in the mixed reviews. Check this one out!
RATING: **** ½
* (Brutal; the worst rating)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)