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There is nothing new about making films about the Second World War or the espionage missions that took place during the conflict. The romantic thriller Allied acknowledges this, with its director, the celebrated Robert Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight choosing to make a deliberately old-fashioned film with modern filmmaking technology.
Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a Canadian intelligence officer working for the Royal Air Force who is parachuted into French Morocco in 1942, working with French Resistance leader Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) to assassinate a German ambassador. After the mission, Max proposes to Marianne and the pair have a child in London. However, their marital bliss is shattered when there’s evidence that suggests that Marianne might be a German spy. Meanwhile British Intelligence runs an operation to find out whether or not she’s a mole. Despite Max being warned not to investigate the case, it doesn’t stop him. He is determined to prove his wife’s innocence.
The time period and setting of the act was a deliberate reference to Casablanca, which many reviewers have compared Allied to. The setup is similar to a Hitchcockian thriller, two spies fall in love while on a mission and one-half of the couple is tested when they find out troubling information about the other. There are elements of the 1946 movie Notorious where the heroine is blackmailed to spy for the Americans. Pitt’s character is also seen reading a Graham Greene novel, a popular writer of the period whose novels look at similar themes that Allied did.
Zemeckis borrows the visual sweep of Casablanca like when people enter rooms as well as some more subtle references to the 1943 film and the tension is similar to what happens in a Hitchcock film, being more about finding information or avoiding their cover been blown. Zemeckis uses slow camera movements to great effect, adding to tension in a scene and raising the stakes. When action and violence are required there is a weight, whether it’s shooting someone or strangling them to death. A love scene in a car during a sandstorm was like a similar sequence in The English Patient.
Zemeckis is known for being a technical filmmaker who pushes the limits of technology – even in dramatic movies like getting Industrial Light & Magic to superimpose Tom Hanks with various presidents in Forrest Gump. His acumen with CGI is still here, but it was pushed to the background – the air defense balloons floating over London is a good example of this. The biggest special effects sequence was a bombing raid where a bomber gets shot down. The assassination and a bombing raid were also big highlights. Mostly in-camera effects were used. These were exciting sequences – even if it is ridiculous to see a woman giving birth as the hospital is getting blown to bits around her. Allied was more focused on the period sets and costumes.
Steven Knight plays to his strength, mixing a mystery with domestic life, especially when the movie moves to London. He lays out different possibilities about Marianne’s identity and allegiances as well as whether the mission is really an elaborate test. The movie scores a hat-trick on being an interesting, yet fairly grounded spy story, a war story and a romance during the war.
Despite Allied’s great attention to getting visuals of the period right, even if a little glamorized, the movie was not true to the period. The worst offender was Lizzy Caplan’s character as Max’s sister, a Canadian woman living in London during the war and openly gay – that wouldn’t have happened. There was also Max and Marianne’s house party which was one of pure debauchery where guests were drinking, shagging and snorting cocaine which was just in the film to be sensational.
Allied marks the third time Brad Pitt leads in a film set during the Second World War, the first two being Inglourious Bastards and Fury. The action scenes in Casablanca will remind audiences of his role as Aldo Raine in Tarantino’s war flick. Pitt speaking French is also reminiscent of him speaking Italian in Inglourious Basterds – Marianne says she speaks with a Quebecian accent, I have to take her word for it. Cotillard was the true standout out of the pair having an interesting character: a woman who’s the life of the party, the one who gives Max the mission briefing and the details of his cover, competent with a gun and a loving mother. Despite all these contrasting character traits in the screenplay, Cotillard makes Marianne out to be a believable woman. Zemeckis uses mirrors as a motif with Marianne – showing a conflicting picture that is the make-up of the character. Pitt was at his best during the quiet moments, using his facial expressions to say all he needs to.
Allied also had a solid supporting cast. Jared Harris played Max’s superior officer in the RAF, resulting in a friendly yet tense relationship. The film also had actors like Matthew Goode and Simon McBurney in small yet pivotal roles.
Allied is a deliberately old-fashioned thriller, focused more on tension, mystery and character relationships than blowing things up. It has visual quality and can match the classics in its references; Cotillard was terrific in her role. Fans of this type of movie will enjoy Allied as a throwback to the 1940s, but more modern audiences may find the pacing slow going.