From the department of cold comforts, Angelina Jolie can take solace in the fact that the movie in which she costarred with Brad Pitt as he left his wife Jennifer Aniston for her (the Hitchcock homage “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) is superior to the new film in which Pitt costars with Marion Cotillard, the woman for whom he may have left Jolie (the wannabe Curtiz “Allied”).
The crux of this spy thriller is oh-so-subtly revealed in the opening credits, where the letters spelling ALLIED fade to LIE before disappearing completely.
Max Vatan (Pitt) parachutes into French Morocco in 1942 where he meets his Parisian fellow spy and pretend wife Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). The computer-generated Casablanca into which they insinuate themselves is so artificial it’s disappointing they don’t stop by Rick’s Café Américain where a kiss could just be a kiss and so forth.
Unlike Bogie’s, Max’s spy wear is a great disappointment, perhaps because, as a native of Medicine Hat, Ontario, he lacks continental fashion sense. Marianne’s clothes are middling, too, though it must be said, her peignoir game is on point. She can also handle a light machine gun and whip up a very refreshing-looking tabbouleh salad.
After the couple complete their mission by dispatching some Nazis with surprisingly graphic violence, the no-longer-pretend lovers retire to London during the Blitz. Hampstead Heath is pretty chill, with a blasé attitude toward Luftwaffe raids and lesbianism. The Vatans’ baby Anne is born with bombs literally falling around her – this is a typical lack of subtlety from director Robert Zemeckis (though, in fairness, blatant phoniness is part and parcel of his best work, like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Death Becomes Her”).
So, with an hour left in the film, Max and Marianne have a house and a child and chickens in the backyard and beef stroganoff in the oven … wait a minute, that’s an awfully foreign sounding dish, isn’t it?! One day Max is called into the office of an unnamed spook (Simon McBurney) who offers the following description of his job: “I’m a ratcatcher.” It’s unclear whether he’s describing his profession or his appearance, but either way he explains to Max that his wife is a suspected German operative who assumed the identity of the real (and deceased) Marianne. Furthermore, if the blue dye operation they run to test whether she’s transmitting confidential reports comes back positive, Max will have to execute his bride.
The still-besotted husband has the overriding and unfortunate desire to find out himself whether she is indeed a double agent when, just like any venereal disease scare, it’s best to wait for the test results before running off to interview people. He looks up a shell-shocked soldier named Guy Sangster (Matthew Goode) who might have known her but is, hilariously, blind and can’t see the picture in Max’s shaking hand.
Given the turgid screenplay from Steven Knight (whose recent work “Burnt” and “Seventh Son” are more Razzie than Oscar contenders) the more enjoyable thing is to watch for hints of the real-life hookup between Pitt and Cotillard, to see them reluctantly fall in love on and off screen. There is a perhaps a moment when he bites her lip in a manner that’s more gripping than these things usually are.
Seeking inspiration, Knight has Max reading a Graham Greene novel, a nice aspirational nod, but he reads “Brighton Rock” when “The Ministry of Fear” is the Greene book he really needed – and had just been published in 1943.