In Hollywood, many of our protagonists seem to be born strong, noble and fearless. These two films, which feature Cate Blanchett as tough protagonists, are not related to the kind of heroines we see in Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with Dragon Tattoo or La Femme Nikita, people we meet whose characters are formed. Not to disparage these great fictional creations, the two women Blanchett plays in Charlotte Gray and Heaven, become tough characters because they have to and they do so gradually, as we watch.
In Charlotte Gray (2001) we are taken to Vichy during the Second World War. Gray, played by Blanchett, becomes a spy for the English to assist the French Resistance not just for the cause, but to find her husband, a downed or perhaps dead, British pilot. It’s a tougher game than she bargained for. War itself is hell, of course, made worse by not knowing who you can trust. Deceit and betrayal mix with politics and the absolute horror that the Nazis brought to most of Europe. It is beautifully filmed, romantically so, but is not for those seeking only action and adventure. It is a film intended to arouse other emotions. Billy Crudup is magnetic as the Communist who knows that he is welcomed by the resistance only because they have a common enemy. And Michael Gambon is masterful as Crudup’s war weary father and reluctant hero.
Melancholy dominates both films. Heaven (2002), which takes place in Turin, Italy, is also incredibly well acted. Blanchett and her co-star Giovanni Ribisi are dazzling. And the cinematography is even better than Gray, no easy achievement. However, while there is no question about the rightness of Charlotte Gray’s actions, there are serious questions about Blanchett’s character, Phillipa. She intends to kill a drug pusher responsible for the death of her husband and for the addictions and deaths of school children. But, through a series of unintended and unpredictable events, the bomb she uses to kill the evil man kills four innocent people instead, two of them children. She expected the arrest for the killing of the drug lord, but she is devastated to find out whom she had unwittingly murdered. What follows is as much poetic as it is dramatic and suspenseful. Ribisi, who has a strange, yet enchanting, and clearly angelic presence, is a policeman who, during her interrogation, falls in love with her.
Neither film relies on the action to carry it, though certainly there is some. After watching the Bourne Legacy earlier in the day, these films almost come across as still photography; but they are well worth a quiet evening. If you are a couple, one of whom likes war and crime films and the other romantic stories, this may be the double feature you can enjoy together. And you may feel comfortable in choosing either an Italian or French wine or both.