It’s 1942. The French Morocco. A man parachutes into the desert. This is the opening of Robert Zemeckis’s Allied. But we quickly see that this is not your average spy thriller. For one, the dull roar of planes gives way to flutes and strings. Romance is in the air – and in the images. The camera feasts on scoops of caramel-coloured sand, and the parachuter sinks into the frame like a spoon in a cup of ice cream. You could call it the Sahara dessert. Then, after this man (Brad Pitt, playing Canadian Air Force Officer Max Vatan) is picked up in a car, the driver passes him a little box. A vial of cyanide? A coded message? No. The box contains a gold band. Max may be with the Allies, but we now see the reason the title is spelled with a twist in the tail. His assignment requires him to become part of a couple, to become… allied.
The other half is Marianne (Marion Cotillard), and as they settle into play-acting as husband and wife, we settle into a story that appears a very curious choice for Zemeckis. The director’s films are usually big and gimmicky. Cast Away isn’t just the story of a man who was marooned on an island. It’s about a big star who gained 50 pounds, shot the early parts, then spent a year losing that weight, while the director went off to make What Lies Beneath. The off-screen logistics around a Zemeckis production are often more fascinating than what ends up on screen. But Allied is a surprisingly – and disappointingly – straight film. (If you’ve seen the trailer, you can predict everything up to the last twenty minutes.)
The giggle-inducing dialogues seem to suggest Zemeckis wanted to fashion a valentine to shlocky melodramas. (After asking Max to spend the night on the rooftop, Marianne says, “In Casablanca, that’s where husbands go after they’ve made love to their wives.” I dare you to keep a straight face.) But the detours into espionage suggest a cross between Prizzi’s Honor and The End of the Affair – it’s partly about spies dancing delicately around each other, partly about a great love that comes at a great cost. But just about nothing works. Unless Zemeckis’s aim was to show that the lives of secret agents is nowhere as nail-biting as the movies would have us imagine, Allied’s dullness is unforgivable. A German ambassador is assassinated, a burning plane crash-lands near a suburban home, a woman gives birth under the sky as bombs rain down around her – the mystery isn’t whether Marianne is really a German spy (as we presumed from the trailer) but how all this activity barely quickens the pulse.
Still, it’s hard to write off a film filled with such sleek elegance. It may be time to retire mirror shots that hint at duality or duplicity, but the one here is breathtaking in its simplicity – we think we see Max and Marianne, but as the camera pulls back, we realise we’ve actually been watching their reflections. Plus, there are the stars. Marianne is a perfect fit for Cotillard, who always looks like a dreamy, distant abstraction – you’re never sure who she is (which is why her most representative role may be the one she played in Inception, as a domestic-goddess siren). She keeps her cards close to her chest, as a spy would. Pitt, however, is so transparent in his anguish that he telegraphs every emotion – it’s hard to believe a pro like Marianne wouldn’t cotton on instantly. But there’s a little detail that makes you feel for Pitt. He has jowls. He turns his head, and there, between his jaw line and the top of his collar, you see folds of flesh. They’re oddly humanising, a reminder that even Greek gods are ultimately mortal.
You’d think someone who had the sense to cast these two would also have the good sense to throw them repeatedly onto a bed and have them thrashing around like eels. Oh, but wait! Zemeckis did do that. The IMDb parent advisory for Allied helpfully warns us that “briefly, a woman’s bare breasts can be seen” and “the buttocks of a male character are seen.” But whose? Only our censors know. I have of visions of Pahlaj Nihalani’s life paralleling the last scenes of Cinema Paradiso, filled with reels of snipped footage of breasts and buttocks. Max and Marianne may outrun Nazis, but they’ll never escape Nihalani.
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