From desire in the sand-swept dunes of northern Africa to intrigue in a bombed-and-blitzed London, Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” aims to bring back the heady grandeur of World War II espionage romances, whipping up a fair amount of movie-mad nostalgia along the way.
The spy-crossed lovers of Stephen Knight’s screenplay — Canadian airman Max (Brad Pitt) and French resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard), tasked to play husband and wife on a dangerous mission — are the kinds of pretend-meets-passion roles you could easily imagine Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman making indelibly satisfying, in the vein of a “Casablanca” or “Notorious.”
But a fine mist of silver-screen memories is unfortunately all that “Allied” can really muster, its general sumptuousness too often stymied by the feeling that you’ve seen this before, and better. Though it’s always apparent how much craft and care went into recreating the old-world glamour of the 1940s, even if the visual effects work is more noticeable/admirable than hidden, “Allied” is ultimately a thin love story, with creaky suspense machinery and star turns from Pitt and Cotillard that feel more like matinee idol dress-up than a meeting of the magnetic.
As the movie opens, we see parachuted legs falling into frame in the Moroccan desert. These belong to Max, a wing commander in one of Britain’s secret forces who is being sent into Nazi-occupied Casablanca, pretending to be a Parisian businessman, with orders to take out the German ambassador. He has a partner, though, and the first time he meets fellow operative Marianne in public, interrupting her dinner with friends, it’s in character as her spouse, a tricky proposition for any agent.
What’s immediately apparent is that she’s more ready to play one-half of a pair of lovers than he is. Where he seems concerned only with the details of their mission, she’s a flirtatious, inquisitive ball of sexual energy, as concerned with keeping up romantic appearances for nosy neighbors as she is helping him with his French. “I keep the emotions real, that’s why it works,” she says.
Eventually the two fall for each other, sealing the deal in the front seat of a car while an obliterating VFX sandstorm — and Zemeckis’ camera — whirls around them. Max makes it official with a marriage proposal in the wake of the mission, after which “Allied” shifts to London, where the pair have settled down in hilly, bohemian Hampstead Heath. (We know it’s boho because Max’s sister, played by Lizzy Caplan, openly has a girlfriend.) In a sequence one could only call the portentous complement to their sex during a haboob, Marianne gives birth to their firstborn outdoors during a blistering air raid, proving that “Allied” is not one to forego a chance to signify its couple’s emotional touchstones with severe danger.
The real test comes when Max is told by a supercilious intelligence officer that his loving wife is a German double agent. The news is reeling enough without the responsibility that comes with it: Max must test Marianne’s loyalty and, if she fails, British military protocol dictates he must kill her himself. Skeptical of the claim, Max also begins a separate, clandestine investigation, against the wishes of his boss and friend, the understanding but pragmatic Colonel Heslop (Jared Harris).
Even with all the elements needed to fashion a doomed, breathless love story, “Allied” never really engages. Screenwriter Knight (“Locke”) fumbles with the plot’s emotional impulses and ticking plot requirements, with neither holding ground long enough to give the movie momentum. The spycraft stuff is ho-hum, and moments designed to stop time — Max tested about his fake company by a Nazi, Marianne talking to a suspicious man at a party, a secret night trip to occupied France — never really add to the tension of the denouement we know is coming.
Zemeckis, meanwhile, has been on a welcome reprieve from motion-capture land of late with “Flight” and the underrated “The Walk.” He’s obviously jazzed here by capturing the ancient exoticism of Casablanca, and the crisp grey-green flavor of England, both handsomely realized by production designer Gary Freeman and cinematographer Don Burgess, even if there’s an indoor feel to a lot of outdoor scenes. But he also seems torn between tending to his love of spectacle and dealing with a love story that never quite gels, and it makes for a lurching rhythm overall.
And since the basis of it all is that love affair — whether it’s doomed or salvageable — it’s especially problematic that Pitt seems wholly miscast, and Cotillard turns in an awkwardly pitched performance. The aging golden boy has never been comfortable with conventional heroes or handsome stiffs, and here he’s both. (You can practically see in Pitt’s eyes how much he’d rather bounce around and be character-actor carefree.)
Cotillard, meanwhile, has always seemed ill at ease when the Hollywood juggernauts push her into mysterious sultriness; her intelligent, sexy seriousness is a more organic force when commanding a more down-to-earth French-language vehicle. Though the two of them still look beautiful here, the movie’s title doesn’t hold water regarding their chemistry.