Friday, 2 December 2016

Allied


While cinema, like any other industry, is an ever-changing entity that rarely settles on a uniformed style for too long, it's tough not to occasionally long for that classy, retro style of film-making that we so rarely see nowadays. Big budget blockbusters can be great when done well but, as good as they can be, sometimes you just want to sit down and watch something stylish and sophisticated and old-timey. Allied, even with its flaws, is a perfect film for when you feel this way. Even the poster at the head of this review could have been released in 1943 - the year the film is mostly set - and a great majority of the film feels this way too. Most of the film's strengths come from the way it looks and feels, and not as much from the way it tells its story, but when you have a film that looks this good and feels this retro, it's kind of hard not to love it.

During World War II, Max (Brad Pitt) is paired with French Resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard). The two have never met before but must pretend to be a loving married couple in order to complete their mission of assassinating the German ambassador. The mission goes well and the pair form a close bond during their time in Morocco. They agree to marry for real and head to London, where they have a daughter named Anna. One year later, the British government contacts Max and tells him that they have solid reason to believe Marianne is a German spy, leaking information that Max gives her, and should this be proven true he must execute her himself. One of the most striking things about Allied is how tonally and visually different the two sides of the film are. The first thirty minutes feel completely different to the last ninety; everything that follows the spy revelation at the beginning of act two almost feels like a whole new film. Normally, a sudden disregard of all that came before in favour of a brand new aesthetic would be jarring, but Allied is smart in the ways it binds its aesthetical choices to its character dynamics.

It does so in a number of ways, too. In the first act, both Max and Marianne are framed evenly. They're both rarely in the background of any given shot and lighting tends to never favour one over the other. Once Max discovers that she could be a spy, however, the film begins to frame her in different ways. Marianne loiters in the background of a number of scenes, occasionally hidden in shadows or shot through windows. In one particularly stunning shot Marianne is framed in a reflection within a reflection as Max looks on at her, and in another she sits in a different room to Max but the film manages to incorporate them both into the shot - yet while his room is warm and lit with a welcoming orange tint, hers feels noticeably colder, with shadows filling the empty space and a blue tinge keeping her illuminated. Max and Marianne's first real intimate moment comes when they have sex in their car in the middle of a sandstorm while the camera rushes around them in semicircles as the sound of wind and sand battering the car grows increasingly louder; the next sex sequence comes after Max begins to doubt her, and the camera lies flat alongside them and scarcely moves. The cinematography may come third to the sets and the costumes, but the way it repeatedly manages to reinforce everything the characters are experiencing is impressive nonetheless.

Speaking of the costumes and the sets, well, they're just as terrific as you'd imagine. Allied wouldn't work half as well as it does if Pitt and Cotillard don't scrub up nicely, but they do and they give the film a great deal of its class and sophistication. It is fully committed to its style and era, and creates a handful of scenes that make you want to dive into the screen and live out the remainder of your life there, even with a war on. Pitt gives a solid if unremarkable performance, he manages to balance Max's emotional complexities yet rarely gives them any spark, but it's Cotillard who makes the lasting impression. Her performance is magnificent, she perfectly creates a character that is impossible to read but remains consistently magnetic. We never know what she's thinking but the playfulness of Cotillard's performance is what really pulls the film through some of its weaker moments. Allied succeeds in crafting a story that is legitimately unpredictable - even when you feel like the film has narrowed its endgame down to two options, it drops in a third possibility that makes you question all you've seen thus far - but most of this comes down to how skillful Cotillard is at tackling such a tricky role. Director Robert Zemeckis is also clever in the way he binds moments of tension to increasingly smaller things - a brilliantly intense moment all comes down to whether a drunk man can recall a woman's eye colour, and the film crafts something gleefully unpredictable near its finale as Marianne waits in a car outside a jewellers during which time neither us nor her have any idea what is going down on the other side of the door.

In fact, the film's unpredictability comes into its own during the final act, after we've learned the truth. It feels a bit bizarre that the film hits its peak intensity after the truth comes out, but it's really a testament to the strength of the characters that we care what happens after the story reaches its ending rather than dropping out once all has been revealed. Allied would make for a seriously terrific film, though, if it didn't keep dropping laughably stupid moments every time it gained momentum. Marianne's childbirth sequence in the middle of the Blitz is over the top enough as it is, but when the nurses all stop to clap while bombs are being dropped in the background it becomes something truly hideous. Likewise, Max and Marianne decide to spend a day together with their daughter and "pretend the war isn't happening", ultimately settling on a picnic in the same field as a crashed German plane. It might sound like a small issue, but both of these moments are so monumentally dumb that they pull you right out of the moment, forcing the film to have to spend more time rebuilding your interest and investment. Storytelling itself may not be Allied's strongest attribute, but with its superb costumes and stunning production design it comes together like a wartime exhibition that coasts by on the strength of one of its lead performances. Come for the interesting premise, stay for pretty much everything besides it.

To Summarise: Despite its uneven storytelling, Allied creates an engagingly character driven narrative that peaks with its old-fashioned style, gorgeous production design, and a magnetic performance from Marion Cotillard.


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