This is an old-fashioned WWII movie, with gallant heroes and vile bad guys, romantic longing and fabulous 1940’s clothes, heartbreaking betrayal and even more heartbreaking loyalty, odious collaborators and valiant resistance fighters, a purse containing both lipstick and a cyanide pill, and characters who are idealists and cynics, sometimes both at once.
This is the kind of movie that used to star actresses like Maureen O’Hara, the kind they mean when they ask why no one makes those kinds of movies any more. And this is the kind of movie that starts with an exquisitely gloved woman riding on a train, looking out the window at the countryside and thinking to herself, “It all seemed so simple then,” while, as the wheels turn, we go back into the past to see what brought her to that point.
Cate Blanchett plays Charlotte Gray, a Scottish woman working in London who is recruited to assist the French resistance. The pilot she loves has been shot down over France, and she has some hope that if she gets there, she will be able to find him. Charlotte is brave, smart, highly principled, and well trained. But nothing can prepare her for the reality of being behind enemy lines, the relentlessness of it and the agony of the moral compromises and all-around physical and emotional grubbiness.
Charlotte, now under cover as Dominique, a Parisian whose husband is a prisoner of war, hands over the package she has been sent to deliver, only to see her contact captured with its contents. She becomes the housekeeper to a testy old man (the magnificent Michael Gambon of “Gosford Park”) who lives in a crumbling mansion. She cares for two young Jewish boys who are hiding out there because their parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. And she helps to blow up a German train, delivers messages from Britain (once with tragic consequences), and tries to find out what has happened to her pilot.
Parents should know that the movie has brutal wartime violence and wrenching emotional scenes, including children in peril and the deaths of important characters. There is some strong language and a non-graphic sexual situation. Characters smoke and drink. The issue of Nazi anti- Semitism is frankly portrayed. The female main character is brave, smart, and heroic.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we can never know what we will do until we are fully tested, which is why stories and movies about war are as much about our internal challenges as about our historical ones. An RAF pilot tells Charlotte, “war makes us into people we didn’t know we were.” How is that good, how is it bad, and how is it both? Why did Charlotte make the choice she did? Why did Julien make the choice he did? Why did the schoolmaster make the choice he did? Does war present different choices to us than peacetime, or just the same ones more starkly?
One of the most touching moments in the movie is a small act of generosity that Charlotte risks her life to perform. Families should talk about how, when it seems that nothing can be done to solve a problem, we can sometimes make great contributions with small kindnesses. Charlotte asks, “Can you forgive yourself if you’ve been part of something terrible but didn’t know?” and is answered, “Otherwise what use are you to anyone?” It is worth talking about how we learn when to forgive ourselves.
Families who enjoy this movie will also appreciate other WWII movies about the resistance effort, including To Have and Have Not, Lucie Aubrac, “The Two of Us,” a French movie about a Jewish boy who is hidden by a French farmer, and the documentary about French complicity with the Nazis, The Sorrow and the Pity.