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Friday, January 11, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Blanchett changes colors again as a WWII spy in 'Charlotte Gray'

Seattle Times movie critic

"Charlotte Gray"


***
With Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Rupert Penry-Jones. Directed by Gillian Armstrong, from a screenplay by Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks. 121 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some war-related violence, sensuality and brief strong language. Several theaters.
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Like Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind," "Charlotte Gray" has a decidedly old-fashioned feel to it, with its romantic images of love and war, its burnished interiors, its picturesque French village. And, also like the Howard movie, it's fueled by a true star turn. Cate Blanchett, exquisite in fitted '40s jackets and tams, gives a passionately serious performance as the title character, a young Scotswoman who, in 1942, joins the French Resistance on a potentially dangerous mission.

Blanchett, always a chameleon, has had numerous opportunities in recent months to show off her transformative powers. In "Bandits," she was a goofy, madcap housewife; in "The Shipping News," a heartless user of men; in "The Fellowship of the Ring," a glowing elf-goddess. Here, she transforms before our eyes: The blond, somewhat unsure Charlotte, after training in Britain to be a secret agent, travels to France as dark-haired, brooding Dominique.

Charlotte's motives are complex: She's fueled partly by a desire to find her lover (Rupert Penry-Jones), a pilot shot down over France; partly by feelings toward her father (hinted at in the film and more clearly spelled out in the Sebastian Faulks novel on which the movie is based); and partly by a vague desire to do something to "set against," as she puts it, the nightmare of war. There's a steeliness to Blanchett's performance — behind a gun, she's a formidable presence — and yet Charlotte's worried eyes convey her inner turmoil.

Director Gillian Armstrong, whose last film ("Oscar and Lucinda") also featured Blanchett, gives us a woman's view of World War II: There's a taut sense of danger here, and a different kind of valor at work. A shot of Blanchett speeding through the French village on her bicycle, trying to save two Jewish children, has the urgency of a soldier racing across a battlefield.

Shot by Dion Beebe ("Holy Smoke"), "Charlotte Gray" is often a ravishingly beautiful film. A view of Blanchett through a rain-streaked window has the softness of a fine oil painting; the shadowy light of the village at dusk is an exquisite study in blue.

While this is clearly Blanchett's film (and the first one she's single-handedly headlined since "Elizabeth"), a pair of fine actors flank her. Billy Crudup, nicely rumpled and absurdly handsome, is heroic as Julian, a fellow member of the Resistance. And Michael Gambon gruffly enacts Levade, Julian's eccentric father. He's got a fine moment late in the film: Asked by German soldiers to produce proof of his non-Jewish identity, he rummages through his pockets, bringing up coins, nuts, bits of string. His small smile is triumphant: He will not give these men what they want. Heroism, as "Charlotte Gray" tells us, comes in many forms.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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