Only Lovers Left Alive: Zemeckis Mounts Handsome Production atop Warbling Wartime Romance
Of all the gin joints in town, he had to walk into hers. Or so one nearly expects to hear via omniscient narration during the initial union between the lead characters of Robert Zemeckis’ WWII romantic melodrama, Allied, a busty homage to the indelible Michael Curtiz classic Casablanca (1942). A handsomely photographed production, replete with stunning costume designs and an initially intriguing first act, stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard enhance the vintage studio showmanship Zemeckis is able to navigate with certain aplomb until it unfortunately fizzles out and loses its nerve. Still, before Steven Knight’s screenplay ends up belaboring itself, the film manages to leave significant impressions in other arenas, including Joanna Johnston’s simple but fantastic costume designs, as well as DP Don Burgess’ glossy camerawork, which manages to paint both the Moroccan desert and the visage of Mr. Pitt with the same well-grooved amber tinged glow.
Canadian assassin Max Vatan (Pitt) shows up in 1942 French Morocco working undercover for Britain’s Special Operations force. There, he is assigned to pose as the French husband of Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard), a member of the French Resistance involved in a plot to take down the Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. Their venture is a success, perhaps due to the ‘thoroughness’ conveyed by Marianne’s commitment to playing her alternate identity, and once their mission is accomplished, Max asks her to join him in London as his wife. A year passes, the young couple has a child, and all seems content for them despite the ongoing war in Europe. But when Max is mysteriously called in to work one day, he learns Marianne is being secretly investigated as a German spy, and must face the possibility of knowing the woman he loves may not be who she says she is. With forty-eight hours to go before Special Operations has concrete evidence of her status, Max flounders for answers. If she’s branded a spy, it is his responsibility to kill her.
If the cinema of Michael Curtiz is the inspiration, Zemeckis also recalls a bit of Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) thanks to Cotillard’s character similarities to the kinds of exotic English language heroines a star like Ingrid Bergman inhabited in the 1940s. But if Casablanca is an obvious reference, Knight abandons this romantic homage for more of a noir-ish Mildred Pierce (1945) style anxiety, wherein Pitt’s lovelorn Max Vatan is tainted by the possibility his wife may be a German spy, a woman for whom he would quite possibly sacrifice not only himself for, but the future of their child.
Tasked with the kind of disagreeable burden assigned the lovers of Prizzi’s Honor (1987), it’s here where Allied falls to the wayside because it depends entirely on the perspective of Pitt, the less interesting and more problematic rendering. Arguably, he’s one of the most prominent contemporary stars working in US cinema, and yet Pitt doesn’t have the kind of presence to quite pull this off, including his distracting status as a French Canadian (often referenced in the script, as if this automatically corrects this). If Cotillard draws comparison to Bergman, Pitt is no Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant, while lighting and make-up and various other filters seem too obviously employed, perhaps overly determined to distort his age. Meanwhile, it’s the second major motion picture which formulates such a distinct Canadian heritage for Pitt (the other being 2013’s 12 Years a Slave).
At the same time, the emotional connection between Max and Marianne seems less a product of romantic suggestion than lusty probability, as pronouncedly detailed by their interactions and first foray into sexual congress in the midst of a raging sand storm. Their eventual tragedy and subsequent undoing feels less potent, and Knight’s script pulls back from being too devious in the final frames, suggesting love indeed does conquer all (when actually, we’re still left doubting some of the overstated sincerity). Likewise, the dastard Nazi element is curiously lacking. Sure, some insidious Germans get knocked off during some surprising moments of violence, but their presence is mostly left to the imagination. Only a sinister August Diehl (who may as well have stepped off the Inglourious Basterds lot) gets to flex his command, while Zemeckis could have used a touch of the delirium suggested by Tarantino or perhaps Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006).
Where the quality of Allied really suffers is in the supporting characterizations. Jared Hess has a rather routine presence as Pitt’s commanding officer, but Knight gets a bit anachronistic with the formulation of Pitt’s sister, played by Lizzy Caplan, a prominent lesbian who canoodles with her girlfriend quite openly in public. To suggest WWII era London was akin to Weimar era Germany is distracting, and since Knight and Zemeckis make this blatant and not a coded representation of an illicit relationship (it was against the law to be homosexual in Britain until decriminalization in 1967—see The Naked Civil Servant for a more responsible depiction), to suggest such progressive social acceptance makes the film reek of unnecessary revisionism.
Zemeckis, who seems more interested in supplying epic visual scope, even when the narrative doesn’t exactly demand it (as with Flight, for instance), ultimately reveals himself to be the wrong person for the job when it comes to Allied, which has a cluster of subversive elements begging to be teased under the surface of a superficial love story.