Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray (2001)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Rupert Penry Jones
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Trailer

Based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks and directed by Gillian Armstrong, the World War Two drama ’Charlotte Gray’ is a film with much potential. Full of sweeping vistas and heartfelt performances, the movie looks and sounds grand but is ultimately undercut by the weakness of the story.

Cate Blanchett stars as Charlotte Gray, a young Scottish woman who signs up to go undercover in Vichy France — ostensibly to help the Resistance but really to search for her Royal Air Force boyfriend who was shot down in the area. Working under the code name of Dominique, Gray is met upon her somewhat rough parachute landing by the left-leaning Resistance fighter Julien Levade (Billy Crudup) and his cohorts.

Gray’s first meeting to deliver a package to another agent is broken up by the local police and from there her main mission seems to fall by the wayside as she and Julien are forced to protect two young Jewish boys whose parents were rounded up for deportation to a concentration camp. Hiding the children at the home of Julien’s gruff father, Auguste (Michael Gambon), the two of course fall in love while trying to evade the increasingly fierce pursuit by the Germans and their local collaborators.

I won’t reveal the ending here but I must say that it was a most unsatisfying way to wrap up what purports to be a serious drama. Charlotte Gray comes across as a flighty, lovelorn girl and not the strong, independent woman she is supposed to be. At times I felt like I was watching a World War II flashback episode of ’Ally McBeal.’

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, ’Charlotte Gray’ arrives on DVD with a fine video transfer. The many lush and lingering atmospheric shots look splendid and the overall image is quite filmlike with very little in the way of artificial sharpness. Colors are very vibrant and black levels are solid. There are no blemishes on the print and no compression artifacts are evident even in the many fog-shrouded scenes.

Audio comes in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is very robust but does have its problems. Dynamic range is remarkable with clear highs and an abundance of deep bass that will get your subwoofer shaking. The soundstage is quite immersive with many directional effects both subtle and in-your-face. The one major problem with the soundtrack is that the dialogue too often trails off into hushed whispers that require large volume increases that come back full force when the sound effects kick in again. Remote control jockeying is neverending for this disc.

While not a full-blown special edition release, this DVD does offer up a few bonus features. Director Gillian Armstrong leads things off with a scene-specific commentary track. While full of detail, the lack of any input from the film’s cast makes this an ultimately forgettable listening experience.

Next up are two short featurettes. ’Living Through Wartime’ offers some insight from Cate Blanchett as to the motivations for her character while ’A Village Revisits History’ looks at the delicate task of restaging a Nazi occupation in a French town that experienced the real thing some 60 years ago. Finally, the film’s theatrical trailer is presented.

’Charlotte Gray’ has a lot going for it — a splendid cast, beautiful locations, and what ought to be an engaging story. Sadly, the film never really goes anywhere and even the lead character seems to be without any sense of direction. If you want to see a film about the Nazi occupation of France and the horrible crimes of the collaborators then check out Marcel Ophüls’s disturbing documentary, ’The Sorrow and the Pity’ instead.

That being said, Warner Brothers has produced a fine enough DVD of the film and fans will most likely be pleased with the audio and video quality as well as the handful of extras.