“Look for the hummingbird”
Sometimes that story you’ve had bouncing around your head needs time to gestate and your career the opportunity to blossom before it can be released upon the world. For Steven Knight it was a bit of both. Already nominated for an Oscar back in 2004 for the brilliant Dirty Pretty Things, the screenwriter soon wrote Eastern Promisesbefore directing the intriguing one-man show Locke. A couple underrated gems (Pawn Sacrifice), some duds (Seventh Son), and a critically acclaimed television series later (“Peaky Blinders”), he finally put the finishing touches on a tale of romance and espionage during World War II told to him by an ex-girlfriend’s aunt more than three decades ago. Director Robert Zemeckis climbed aboard, Brad Pittand Marion Cotillard followed, and Allied was born.
The film centers on a Canadian wing commander based out of London named Max Vatan (Pitt). Tasked with helping a French resistance fighter (Cotillard’s Marianne Beauséjour) assassinate a high-ranking Nazi official in Casablanca, he parachutes into Morocco to go undercover as her Parisian husband. Almost half the runtime is spent on this bit of spy work so we can get to know these characters as they test each other and show their mettle. Feelings must be real to survive, but for them feelings blossom into love. If they are so lucky to escape the desert sands with their lives, marriage is on the horizon. Soon a baby will come, the white picket fence, and a hopeful end to the war so life together may begin anew.
Unfortunately for Max, the idyllic happy ending comes to an abrupt stop when a superior forces him into a classified mission to identify a mole. The suspect: Marianne. Suddenly everything we witnessed during Act One takes on new meaning. Every misstep and word is stripped down and repeated to fit a story of her innocence and one of her guilt. In seventy-two hours the British secret service will know the truth and either let Max return to his normal life or order him to execute his wife. Knight’s script and Zemeckis’ direction ratchet up the suspense with Max’s stalwart faith in Marianne’s virtue wrestling his lingering doubts. He knows someone who could clear things up—if only he can covertly find him and inquire without anyone knowing.
This is more or less the plot as presented in the trailer. Things look stylish and the espionage looks intense. What the advertisement doesn’t show is the emotion and the care to which Zemeckis lets love between his leads grow. Allied really is a romance above everything—more than World War II epic or suspense thriller. Whether or not it will be revealed that Marianne is a spy becomes inconsequential to Max’s motivations. He wants to believe the accusation is false, that this is all a test set forth by the S.O.E. (represented by Simon McBurney‘s nameless official) of which his boss (Jared Harris‘ Frank) isn’t even allowed to be aware. But if it is discovered true, if she has been stealing secrets, could he pull the trigger?
Max’s search is a quiet journey to seek out Guy Sangster (Matthew Goode), find solace in sister Bridget (Lizzy Caplan), and keep up appearances at home. His actions aren’t flashy because their introspection and secretive nature increase the impact of what he finds while also allowing the world around him to be augmented against his unassuming nature. This is Britain during bomb raids with Nazi planes flying overhead, sirens blaring, and missiles firing. War becomes a party’s fireworks, the potential for an aircraft to come crashing down in a fiery blaze providing Zemeckis the latitude to add some Hollywood explosiveness technology-wise as he’s wont to do. Morocco is equally complex with period-specific wardrobe and surroundings, the environment setting the stage so Pitt and Cotillard can supply the drama.
Both are very good here with his Max the stoic, hopeless romantic against her Marianne as the brashly confident sparkplug who can put a smile on everyone’s face simply by looking at them. That’s not to say they don’t each excel at the opposite when circumstances call for it, though. Pitt’s penchant for cursing and losing his temper gives him the humanity his more methodical professionalism hides; Cotillard’s depth lets a melancholy slip underneath every chance at true happiness to add a layer of mystery. This is their show: each playing who they are, who they’re pretending to be, and who they hope to become. Secrets abound to give pause as to what we should believe, their being spies ensuring we can never be certain of intent.
Zemeckis lets them loose within intricate set pieces and a constant barrage of pitfalls to avoid and deflect. In Morocco it’s all about playing their roles and hiding their deficiencies; in London it’s deciphering a change in atmosphere to question everything coming their way. Will Max’s poor Parisian accent give him away on their mission? How about off-the-cuff lies about poker prowess with Nazi agent Hobar (August Diehl) revealing himself to be a proficient gambler too? And what about Marianne’s new British friends coming and going with suspicious faces and sex-starved libidos? Can we afford to trust any of them? Can Max? Maybe it’s all a game, but this is their life. Could you stand back and wait knowing there’s a 50/50 chance it’s being ripped apart?
There are a few shaky effects moments (Pitt’s seemingly computer-generated parachute, some sun haze filter over fake buildings in the background, and flying planes not quite seamlessly meshed with their surroundings), but the film’s success is hardly due to its things. The WWII-era artifice is realized effectively, but how it’s utilized is what’s important. Between the intricate if welcomingly not all-that shocking surprises Knight has written and the expertly paced timing of their reveals by Zemeckis, Allied proves a taut thriller exposing the power of love above country. Where it lives and breathes is with Pitt and Cotillard’s chemistry and their intellect at reading their situation to find out whether their feelings are true. Just like war the answer can only lead us to bittersweet devastation either way.
Rating: R | Runtime: 124 minutes | Release Date: November 23rd, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director(s): Robert Zemeckis
Writer(s): Steven Knight