For a movie about war, Allied displays an impressive quietude. The opening few minutes especially are remarkably serene… and remarkably tense at the same time. A man in World War II-era fatigues parachutes into a desert at dawn, hikes in solitude along the dunes, then along a deserted road, until dust on the horizon announces the approach of a car. Is it his doom coming toward him, or his contact? When the car stops and he gets inside, the man and the driver say nothing to each other for quite a long while. It’s subdued and gripping, as if everything that might have needed to be said had already been dispatched with long ago. Or, perhaps, as if whatever mistrust might hover between them isn’t worth letting get in the way of the work that needs to be done.
It is French Morocco in 1942, and this marvelous cinematic ethos — something I can’t recall seeing onscreen in a long time — will continue as the man, soon revealed to be Canadian intelligence operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt: The Big Short, Fury), connects with his new partner, French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard: Two Days, One Night, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues). They’ve never even met before, have only the vaguest description of what each other looks like. But they instantly fall into a public performance of the roles they must play, as a married couple, in order to carry out their mission to assassinate a Nazi official. (Not a spoiler. We’d had pretty much guessed as much already anyway, because what else would they be doing there?) It’s thrilling in the most romantic sort of way, evocative of old-fashioned movie-movie notions of sacrifice and duty and the glamorous mystique of secrets and spies. (The clothes! Oh, the clothes. This is a lush mounting of the period that revels in its sense of style.)
The one overwhelming reaction I had during Allied is this: I felt like I was watching a war drama from that era that has only just recently been rediscovered. Perhaps one inspired by Casablanca itself. (Yes, their let’s-kill-a-Nazi mission is happening in that very city.) The ending, which actually feels a bit like a tacked-on coda, is a detour into director Robert Zemeckis’s (The Walk, Flight) trademark sentimentality that the movie could have done without. But the only other bit of mawkishness, in the script by Steven Knight (Burnt, Seventh Son) involves Max and Marianne’s baby being born a year later amidst German bombing in London, and yet that bit somehow works: “This is incredibly cheesy,” I was thinking in the middle of the scene, but it is ultimately more moving than it deserves to be; I definitely had something in my eye by the end of it.
And that’s because we get genuinely invested in Max and Marianne’s relationship. Of course they fall in love in Casablanca — I imagine that that might be a side effect of killing Nazis with an attractive and mysterious stranger by your side — and now they’re married and raising the kid in London, where he is seconded to the RAF. But we’d been warned, by Marianne herself, that perhaps we shouldn’t trust anything: Back in Casablanca, on the very night they met, Max marveled at how good she was at getting along with the German officers and administrators she had already befriended as part of their mission. That’s because, she explained, she actually really liked them. “I keep the emotions real,” she said. “That’s how it works.” We’d gotten a hint, too, that Max is very good at truly liking people so he doesn’t have to fake it.
That comes back to haunt Max and Marianne — and us — when their loyalties are called into question by the RAF. There are still a few good bits of stuff blowing up to come — the sequence in which a damaged German bomber slowly falls from the skies over London is full of exquisite tension — but the action of war now mostly takes a backseat to the emotional turmoil that inevitable occurs when spies whose lives depend on the success of their lies must trust one another, if they can.
Until the final moments, you won’t know whom to trust, either. With Allied, Zemeckis has created an elegant potboiler that judiciously balances psychological and physical suspense. It really does seem to hail from another cinematic era, one in which silences heavy with suspicion spoke louder than any words could.