The power of “Allied” lies in a single terrifying question: what if the person you love isn’t actually who they claim to be?
The lurking dread of that question seeps through this WWII-espionage-flick-cum-romantic-drama like slow poison, building to a nerve-racking crescendo and an unforeseen finale. Helmed by Robert Zemeckis (director of such diverse offerings as “Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future,” and “Beowulf”), the film plays out like a generally satisfying fusion of “Casablanca” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” with some Hitchcock thrown in for good measure.
“Allied” feels rather like a stage play in two acts, picking up in 1942 in the heart of Nazi-occupied Morocco. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) are Allied spies with a highly dangerous mission: assassinate the territory’s German ambassador. To infiltrate the ambassador’s inner circle, they must pose as husband and wife, surviving a gauntlet of gala events and encounters with German counterintelligence forces.
Flash forward a year or so: Max and Marianne have retired to London from the field, and are married in real life. Max holds a managerial role in the Royal Air Force, while Marianne is raising their infant daughter. And then, out of nowhere, Max’s superiors confront him with a terrifying possibility: his wife may actually be a German double agent. From then on, “Allied” ratchets into high gear, pushing Max to the limits of psychological (and physical) endurance as he pursues the truth.
Marion Cotillard Makes the Film
Pitt turns in a serviceable performance as Max, but this is truly Cotillard’s show. Here, she’s playing a warmer-hearted incarnation of her Talia al Ghul character from Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises”—the consummate femme fatale, coupling an obviously rich inner life with an undercurrent of potential threat. In anyone else’s hands, Marianne could’ve come off as a one-note heroine or villain; Cotillard imbues her with real sensitivity and mystery, keeping the audience in the dark until the film’s very last minutes.
Zemeckis is a talented filmmaker, and this movie is no exception: “Allied” blends exceptional production values, smooth cinematography, and haunting imagery (scenes of antiaircraft fire over London are particularly breathtaking). Accordingly, the faults of “Allied” are not typically affirmative missteps, but rather overlooked opportunities—chief among them a reluctance to let the film’s own tension fully percolate.
Upon first learning of Marianne’s potential betrayal, Max is tasked with spearheading a sting operation designed to ferret out the truth about his wife: within 72 hours of taking action, he and the authorities will know whether Marianne is actually a traitor. From then on, “Allied” veers off in several different directions as Max conducts his own independent fact-finding operation—an investigation that takes him to locales as diverse as a bohemian house party, a rain-blasted airfield, and a Nazi-infested prison.
The Film’s True Terror Lies In Its Uncertainty
It’s all very intense, compulsively watchable material…but it actually works to defuse, rather than escalate, the film’s looming tension. In affording Max the autonomy to pursue his search for answers, “Allied” fails to embrace the full bitterness of its central conceit. The simple fact of Max’s quest—wholly irrespective of whether it turns up any results—is reassuring in its own way. At least he’s doing something, the audience thinks desperately. At least he’s taking action to find the truth where he can! I’d do exactly the same thing if I were in his shoes.
But this movie’s most nerve-shredding moments come in the form of simple domestic interactions, not shootouts with Nazi gunmen. With Max aware of the British government’s ongoing investigation (and Marianne entirely oblivious), every scene between them crackles with psychological electricity. Will Max slip up and disclose the sting? Will Marianne slide a knife between Max’s ribs? And what of their child?
The movie’s true terror—a terror that would become nearly unbearable if deployed here—lies in total powerlessness in the face of uncertainty. Could Max actually manage to keep up a façade of normalcy with Marianne for 72 uninterrupted hours, with his doubt and fear growing ever more intense? “Allied,” unfortunately, doesn’t answer that question. None of this should suggest that the film is too predictable—indeed, the movie commendably refuses to pander to audience expectations—but it tends to dodge away from the full emotional impact of the scenario it’s created. To watch such a scenario play out fully would, no doubt, be agonizing… but also distinctly brilliant.
‘Allied’ Is Satisfying, If Not Perfect
Because of this, “Allied” will probably not make its way into any cinematic pantheons. It simply drifts once too often into easy storytelling, rather than fully committing to its own narrative demands. Audiences on the fence may also wish to know that “Allied” is much more a spy thriller than a romance: for all the myriad rumors involving Cotillard and the dissolution of the Pitt-Jolie marriage, any onscreen eroticism between Max and Marianne is decidedly kept to a minimum. Nor does Zemeckis devote much attention to the thorny moral questions—love versus patriotism? ethics of deception and murder in war?—that underlie his tale.
Having said that, “Allied” is a viscerally satisfying, if not particularly genre-defining, cinematic experience: its intense conclusion feels earned, never gimmicky (and Cotillard’s performance is fantastic throughout). Despite having seen many films that strive for a similar degree of uncertainty, I found myself snared by this movie’s particular blend of fear and fidelity. “Allied” may not change the way you think or feel about the world, but it will almost certainly leave you pleasantly shaken.