When asked how she has kept up a ruse among Nazis in Morocco, Marion Cotillard’s Resistance agent Marianne Beauséjour offers one trick of the trade: keep the emotions real. Precision is important – and she has plenty – but the feeling matters most.
In “Allied,” director Robert Zemeckis might not be trying anything nearly as daring as the espionage mission undertaken by Marianne and her Canadian companion, Brad Pitt’s Max Vatan, yet he heeds that core dictum all the same. His Old Hollywood throwback is a classically styled delight that succeeds largely on the dynamism of the two stars. Their transition from partners in crime to partners in life is gradual, then sudden, and it works because Zemeckis creates an environment where a series of sparks can believably ignite a blaze.
The golden-age romance turns on a dime in the film’s second half when British intelligence officers inform Max of their belief that Marianne is, in fact, passing classified information back to the Nazis. At this point, “Allied” shifts registers into an old-fashioned thriller; Zemeckis masterfully deploys his craftsmanship here. Small sonic details become searing motifs that comment on the tension ratcheting up between the couple. Brisk cuts sweep us from one scene into the next, echoing the whiplash Max must feel. In both themes and content, the film feels like it shares a close kinship with Hitchcock’s early American work in the 1940s.
None of this is meant to mitigate the invaluable contributions of the actors, however. Without their smolder to match Zemeckis’ swagger, “Allied” would be dead on arrival. Pitt and Cotillard supply both the grand gestures of a love formed in the crucible of war as well as the subtleties of suspicion between intimates with a secret to keep. The show of feeling from Pitt is especially welcome; we are used to seeing him as occasionally vulnerable (“Moneyball,” “Benjamin Button“) but seldom openly emotional. The situation at hand calls for prioritizing his duty to the Allied forces and his duty to a lawfully wedded wife. His agony does not go unnoticed in Max’s quivering lips and often feral intensity to disprove his superiors.
Cotillard, meanwhile, continues to cement her place as the best silent film star of the contemporary era. As Norma Desmond of “Sunset Boulevard” famously declared of the pre-talkie period, “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And 2016 has produced precious little dialogue that can compare to the excitement of watching Cotillard’s expressive face in the film’s final act, which provides her few lines but plenty of opportunities to emote. Once her traditional feminine wiles are stripped away, Marianne is left with few recourses to control her situation. She becomes a riveting cipher, and Cotillard keeps us hooked until the final revelation. B+ /