Allied Features Spies in the House of Love

Robert Zemeckis makes an exceptionally grown-up drama.

Allied is an exceptionally grown-up drama directed by the veteran Robert Zemeckis and starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Zemeckis’ name and the words “grown-up drama” have not often been linked. Material aimed at audiences older than, say, fifteen is a still relative novelty for the 64-year-old filmmaker. Until he made Flight in 2012 and The Walk last year, Zemeckis’ career was conspicuous mainly for cartoonish fantasies and middle-of-the-road marketing concepts like the one that launched a tourist-trap restaurant chain built around a moron with a box of chocolates. A complicated, emotionally nuanced scenario about two married people who don’t trust each other would represent a departure.

But even Hollywood candy pushers can change. Allied takes place in the European Theater of World War II. Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Royal Canadian Air Force officer on loan to the British government’s counter-espionage V Section, for whom he conducts raids and assassinates important Germans. Max and former French Resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Cotillard) first meet in Casablanca, Morocco, where they are to pose as husband and wife en route to violently neutralizing the Nazi ambassador. One thing leads to another and the two spies fall in love for real. Their assignments then take them to London, which is where the true suspense begins.

Pitt and Cotillard are right for each other in this film, not only because of their still viable middle-aged physical charm but because the roles call for a spy’s wariness. Max and Marianne love each other with a furious passion, but they’re also old enough, and well trained enough, to remain slightly on guard with each other, even after they’ve set up housekeeping near Hampstead Heath and have welcomed a baby daughter.

Audience members who happen to be in long-term relationships may well recognize the way Max and Marianne look twice at each other in routine household banter, as if trying to suss out the real meaning of last-minute, late-night business appointments and surreptitious conversations. They mistrust each other not only in the manner of secret agents, but in the same way as longtime partners who are getting a bit bored with their mates. Zemeckis, screenwriter Steven (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things) Knight, Pitt, and Cotillard make the most of Max and Marianne’s nervous domesticity. It reminds us of the way Sylvia Sidney regards Oskar Homolka in Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage. Added to their already edgy relationship is the constant threat of German buzz bombs raining destruction on London in night-time air raids. And yet the mood remains calm, somber, and oddly hushed – ideal for a tale of uncertainty and deception.

The supporting cast is excellent all the way down the line. Jared Harris, as Max’s British Army handler Frank Heslop, gets off a line worthy of John le Carré: “Marriages made in the field never work.” It’s delivered in the perfect ultra-dry, gin-and-tonic tone. There’s a wonderful, not completely gratuitous but utterly believable subplot involving Max’s sister, a Quebecois lesbian named Bridget (Lizzy Caplan), and her situation in London. Matthew Goode is unforgettable in one brief scene as a potential character witness with half his face missing. Simon McBurney once again puts his remarkable visage to work as the Special Operations Executive man who delivers bad news to Max.

Characters are introduced, then it’s announced in the next scene that they’ve been killed in action. We learn that people had a lot of spontaneous sex during WWII. Lust was the main preoccupation, alongside fear – you could die tomorrow. It is emphasized that this is wartime and the usual rules are not in force, which only makes Max and Marianne’s affair more poignant. Allied explains more about war, dependency, and human nature in general than just about any other film in theaters this pre-holiday season. It’s recommended, especially for people who usually have no time for war movies.
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