If you watched the trailer for Allied and thought, "Wait, isn’t that just Mr. and Mrs. Smith but in World War II?" — well, you’re not totally off base. Besides the obvious Brad Pitt connection, both movies are about spy couples who start to discover the other person may not be who they think, and both are pretty sexy.
But whereas Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a comedy thriller, Allied feels like a relic from a much older age, a serious drama that looks and acts more like Hitchcock by way of Casablanca than a Bond movie. But though it’s beautifully shot and features a particularly great performance from Marion Cotillard, it’s a curiously empty film. There’s style aplenty, but a faltering third act ultimate flattens any substance.
Allied is a classic wartime romance
In the first quiet shots of Allied, intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the desert and makes his way into Casablanca, where he’s set to meet Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a French resistance fighter. Their meeting is straight out of a romance novel: He sees her across the room, she half-turns and spots him, and then, exuberant, she introduces him to her companions as her husband, who has been in Paris.
When he replies in French (yes, Brad Pitt speaks French a lot in this movie), they all believe her. Then he whisks her away to celebrate his homecoming.
Except it’s not a homecoming. The two have never met before, but they’ve been assigned to work together to assassinate a German official, and so there is work to do. Carefully maintaining the image of a passionate marriage so as not to raise suspicion, Max and Marianne plot and train, setting their trap and getting ready to spring it.
Of course, the real story here is that they are going to fall in love, which is not a spoiler because it’s telegraphed from their first meeting. It’s the sort of romance that feels inevitable: Two beautiful people with a common cause thrown together in the heat of battle will naturally fall in love and get married.
Which is what they do. Max arranges for Marianne to gain passage to the UK, where he (as a Canadian) is working, living near his sister Bridget (Lizzy Caplan). They marry, settle into a small flat, and have a baby girl, whom Marianne delivers while the hospital is under a bombing siege. They are happy. In between bombing raids, their life is full of love.
Allied suffers from a messy ending, but it’s beautiful to look at
So far, so good. Unfortunately, Allied suffers from a screenplay that starts out taut and interesting but grows baggier as it goes on, until, by the end, it’s overwrought melodramatic cheese.
One day, Max receives word from his commanding officer (Jared Harris) that his happy life with Marianne may not be all that it seems. Suspicious now, he returns home and tries to act normal, but keeps a close eye on her. A few days later, during a raucous party of intellectuals and other interesting people at their home, Max notices Marianne in close conversation with a man he doesn’t know. A bombing raid interrupts the party (complete with a burning plane that crash-lands very close to the house), which provides a bit of distraction, but now Max must know. Determined to figure out whether Marianne is what she appears to be, he concocts a series of increasingly ham-fisted tests to find her out.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but I can say that by the time we get there, the plot has tied itself in a Gordian knot that only really has one solution — and then it just takes that solution, abandoning the possibility of a final thrilling moment.
This is unsatisfying because while Max certainly is shocked by what happens, it seems inevitable to us. That’s a switch from what the movie tries to do up to this point, framing the story mostly through Max’s eyes as he gazes at Marianne, wondering whether she’s real or a fraud, and letting us wonder. The conclusion is deflating. But this movie isn’t plotted as a thriller — which is, in a sense, the point. Allied reaches back to the tradition of old Hollywood romances against a war backdrop, with a noir twist, and it is content to move along at a methodical pace.
That Allied isn’t quite as good as its cinematic predecessors may be inevitable; this is a film from 2016, not 1942, and the wartime romance genre doesn’t have many surprises left up its sleeve. But it’s gorgeously shot — no surprise from director Robert Zemeckis, whose interest in experimenting with how images can add to narrative can be seen in movies like The Walk, Beowulf, The Polar Express, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and others. Here he sticks with conventional images but shoots them in a way that evokes older influences. In an early scene, when Max and Marianne make love for the first time in a car, the sand swirls around them in the desert and the camera circles to match, in a manner that’s almost expressionistic.
Still, though the plot feels overwrought by the end, for most of the film the steadiness is comforting — like this is a movie you should be watching under a blanket while the snow falls outside. And while it falters at times, Allied is worth it just for Cotillard’s eyes as she feels every emotion (not to mention her outstanding wardrobe), thrown into relief by Pitt’s steady, quiet performance. They may not make movies like they used to, but Allied is a good approximation.
Allied opens in theaters on November 23.