by Scott Gentry
1942, Morocco. Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) makes the acquaintance of French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), on a secret mission behind enemy lines. Sparks between them fly and the couple soon return to London, marry and eventually have a child together. Despite the perpetual threat of war, the family remain strong. The tranquillity of family life however, is soon eradicated, upon Vatan’s discovery that Beausejour is accused of being a sleeper spy employed by the Germans. Vatan’s superiors grant him two choices: prove that the accusations are false, or execute Beausejour on sight, should he discover her to be treacherous. Determined to clear her name and avoid his own execution (a possible result of his non-compliance), Vatan sets out on a mission unlike any he has ever been trained for: the investigation of his wife.
Following Allied’s pulse-pounding teaser trailer (released mid-August), many cinephiles have been eagerly anticipating its cinematic debut. It isn’t difficult to understand why. There’s the appeal of two supremely talented stars, the promise of an old-school spy film and of course, a Robert Zemeckis film which didn’t fall into the uncanny valley… For a moment, the smell of awards-season appeal permeated the air. Yet, we may have been duped.
Written by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), Allied begins as an intriguing thriller which is ultimately let down by the direction in which the narrative travels. It isn’t particularly easy to describe why without giving away spoilers. Yet, I will say that in favour of reaching a vaguely interesting denouement, Knight seems to deliberately reach for “higher stakes”, in regards to the motives of one particular character, for fear that a finale free of cliché would in fact be quite tedious. But it isn’t just the film’s narrative which causes problems, but the representation of iconic landmarks, army officials and even homosexuals are often bothersome. For example, Lizzy Caplan portrays Bridget, an openly gay officer within the armed forces who passionately embraces other women in public, throughout the film.
Although homosexuality is no longer illegal, it wasn’t decriminalized until 1967 within the United Kingdom – the setting for a large portion of Allied. Despite the fact that homosexuality was deemed socially unacceptable by many, the characters within Allied never seem to be phased by an openly homosexual woman. You would expect to witness discriminatory behaviour or at least a shocked glance perhaps, towards Bridget and her respective partner. Yet this never occurs. Discrimination towards homosexuals is most certainly wrong, but this representation isn’t at all authentic considering the period setting.
As a filmmaker, Zemeckis’s visual style has drawn intense criticism from critics and audiences alike, despite uses of VFX which have ultimately served a purpose to the overall narrative of many films within his filmography. In fact, they have often generated fervent dramatic heft within many of his films. 2015’s The Walk utilised the work of VFX and 3-D (with vertigo-inducing effects), yet managed to frequently elicit affecting drama from the scenes in which Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – portraying a high-wire artist) walked upon a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. On the surface, scenes such as this are designed to astonish. Yet throughout his filmography, Zemeckis frequently compliments various sequences with an undeniable beauty, which elicit the analysis of a character and often an insight into why they chose to make decisions seen upon the silver screen, particularly that of Petit’s.
Sadly, it now seems as though Zemeckis may have become far too interested within the VFX/CG work of Allied, for an unnatural, bemusing gloss lies upon the film’s surface. The film regularly fails to impress through its visuals, as frames of the desert often appear to be substandard and unrealistic renditions. The desired effect of VFX/CG is that audiences would experience feelings of awe, for example, as the effects should be convincing. Instead, here they are simply painful to endure.
Allied may benefit from the proficient direction of Zemeckis, yet the route in which the film’s narrative follows is misguided, as it desperately strives to capture the magic of classic Hollywood cinema, yet only corners itself. Knight’s dialogue crackles however in the capable acting hands of Pitt and Cotillard, as the pair’s chemistry is reminiscent of many iconic onscreen couples. One might say that Allied pays homage to the spy genre, yet it seems that Knight and Zemeckis are only concerned with the prioritisation of imitation, above the reinterpretation of a bygone genre.
Allied is out November 25th