Director Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda, Little Women) has crafted a new kind of female hero in her film about the gray area of war, a hero defined by both love and principle. Charlotte is a studious, cautious contrast to her flamboyant, on-the-prowl roommates who cruise a circa 1942 London publishing party for soldier-boy flesh. Charlotte may be able to "read Stendahl in French," as one character observes, but she is not above girlish fancies like love at first sight. When she meets the gaze of Ken doll RAF pilot Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones), she demonstrates a verve that would do any Cosmo girl proud by taking him home for a marathon of naked amour.
Inspired by a mistaken notion of her pilot's bravery, Charlotte decides to also perform an act of self- sacrifice. A Mrs. Minivier for the Oxygen age, Charlotte does the only reasonable thing to be expected of a stand-up gal in wartime -- joins up with the French Resistance. Capitalizing on her fluency in French, Charlotte goes undercover for the British government as a Parisian in Occupied France, running messages for the cause.
After a montage of Charlotte at a spy training camp firing pistols and jogging in the woods, Charlotte is (in a perhaps unintentionally humorous bit) armed for a female warrior's battle: Given her ration of lipstick and sanitary napkins, Charlotte is dropped via parachute like a snowflake in the middle of a French hayfield. And that lipstick becomes a crucial weapon since the bucolic countryside harbors not only Nazis but a babelicious French Resistance fighter, Julien (Billy Crudup).
It is a sturdy, engaging yarn with a heroine to inspire women unaccustomed to seeing representations of female pluck, integrity and bravery who aren't burned at the stake in the final reel. As Charlotte becomes more and more involved in Resistance activities in a small French village, however, complications to her spy-girl notions arise. Half the villagers are collaborators, like the menacingly ferret-faced schoolteacher who turns his own students over to the Nazis with a sadistic smirk or her fellow undercover Brit spy whose motivations for serving the Allied cause are less than noble.
But Armstrong's attention is so fixedly on her heroine's confusion, she leaves gaping holes in her storytelling, foremost in developing the relationships between Charlotte and the handsome, equally principled Communist Julien. Also lacking in texture is the bond that grows between Charlotte and two small Jewish boys whom the Resistance hide in the country home of Julien's father, Levade (Michael Gambon). Though her focus is on the human dynamics -- the weaknesses and strengths and multiple gray areas that complicate history book ideals of bravery and sacrifice -- Armstrong fails to adequately flesh out the subtleties of character and motivation. One of the best relationships in the film, for instance, is not the romantic one between Charlotte and Julien, but the platonic one between Charlotte and the gruff, disgruntled Levade whose veracity merely helps demonstrate the lack of engaging relationships elsewhere.
Armstrong's films often have placed her empowered female protagonists into a conventional romantic framework that often can feel like Jane Campion-lite. And so, while Charlotte Gray keeps hinting at the possibility of female heroism, it continually slides back into a more recognizable formula of romance. And so, Charlotte's moral quandaries look more and more like the oh-gollified self-doubt of more traditional girl heroines of the Bridget Jones variety. It's as if Armstrong thinks an audience might not relate to a woman hero if she isn't also a heartsick honeypot. Playing into a notion shared by Harlequin Romance readers everywhere, Armstrong asserts that a woman's love life is the most interesting part of her personality.
Had she not relied so completely on the surface prettiness and romance of the three leads -- Crudup, Penry-Jones and Blanchett -- Armstrong might have offered something more engaging than this watery emotional broth. As it is, Charlotte Gray tries to have it all -- action, adventure, romance and a psychologically complex message -- at great detriment to a larger sense of purpose.