Conquest of the Air


Represented in recent years by films including The English Patient, The End of the Affair, and Pearl Harbor, the World War II-era love triangle runs the risk of inverting the Casablanca principle: This crazy world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans amid the problems of three little people. The latest entries in the genre are Gillian Armstrong’s Charlotte Gray and Jan Sverak’s Dark Blue World—adjuncts to moviedom’s current mission to lure audiences from the documentary war footage available on TV with the dramatized war footage being hurried into theaters. Sverak’s film sometimes leans toward the cutesy or nostalgic, but it never loses sight of the unfathomably big picture. In the breathless Charlotte Gray, which finds the titular British-government spy falling first for an RAF pilot and then a French resistance fighter, Charlotte herself (Cate Blanchett) is redoubtably noble and altruistic, but the movie nestles so snugly under its heroine’s wing that world-shattering events line up as a neat row of milestones on her journey to self-discovery.

Bashful and coltish, Charlotte is early spotted at a publishing party, clutching a book on the outskirts of the crowd and furtively tossing a drink into a potted plant. There she meets her handsome blond airman, Peter (Rupert Penry-Jones), and the duo promptly found their own 24-7 bedroom community until he’s suddenly called back to duty (and then goes missing). Casting about for a sense of wartime purpose (“Good must triumph over evil,” she has already mused in voice-over), Charlotte is soon on her majesty’s secret service, parachuting into rural nighttime France to rendezvous with a Communist underground warrior, Julien (Billy Crudup). Her duties under the Vichy radar are, for the most part, hazardously domestic: In the ramshackle old villa owned by Julien’s crusty but wise dad (Michael Gambon), Charlotte shields and mothers two young Jewish boys whose parents have already disappeared.

Sebastian Faulks’s source novel—panting with ellipses, writhing with tormented interior monologues—is the kind of densely researched historical pulp that can provide fecund raw material for a filmmaker, but Jeremy Brock’s script deepens the purples of Faulks’s prose while airbrushing out the grays. The movie’s plaster-castings carve away Peter’s evasive, faintly sinister ambivalence and Charlotte’s deep depressions, while the imperiled children in the fledgling spy’s care often seem merely a device for sanctifying her. Armstrong coaxes straightforward, unmannered performances from Blanchett and Crudup (they of the dueling cheekbones!). But since much of Charlotte and Julien’s task is a wait-and-worry game, the narrative is unexpectedly sleepy, excepting the occasional flashy set piece: Gun-toting Charlotte strikes a femme Nikita pose in an abandoned manse; Julien deliriously confronts a German tank. In the latter lopsided showdown, quick-thinking Charlotte averts catastrophe by leaping into Julien’s arms. Indeed, having begun as a romance interrupted, Charlotte Gray decides to end as one too—with a kiss to make it better.

A Nazi invasion also provides a backdrop for trysting in Dark Blue World: Middle-aged pilot Franta (Ondrej Vetchy) is tumbling with his girlfriend when news arrives of the bloodless German landing in Czechoslovakia. Franta flees with his young pal Karel (Krystof Hadek) to an RAF airbase, where a passel of experienced Czech flyboys are put through condescending English lessons and truly humiliating “flight exercises” involving unwieldy bicycles and human-beatbox sound effects. When Karel is downed by a Messerschmitt, he seeks refuge with an older Englishwoman, Susan (Tara Fitzgerald), who cares for evacuated children in a semi-isolated country cottage. She indulgently unburdens the callow, posturing youth of his virginity but later finds herself drawn to the gentle Franta. (The romantic configuration evokes a wartime Rushmore.)

Dark Blue World and Sverak’s previous Kolya were each written by the director’s father, Zdenek, and both films betray a weakness for the symmetrical and sentimental—a protracted bit of business involving Franta’s quizzical, phone-answering springer spaniel is rehabilitated only by the dog’s elegantly understated performance. But there’s no swoony morbidity here, no sense of arousal by doom. Sverak’s tone is sweet, rueful, and wary, while Vladimir Smutny’s inky cinematography evokes the faraway-so-close title. The film encloses its central trio not only within the immediate cataclysm but also in a resonant (albeit clumsily executed) framing device: Franta tells the story from a labor camp, where he is imprisoned by the new Communist state for his WWII service. Gawky and precious as the film can be, its context is nothing less than the 20th century.

In How High, devoted herbalists Silas (Method Man) and Jamal (Redman) mourn a departed buddy by fertilizing a choice cannabis plant with his ashes, and discover that the magic weed temporarily morphs them into testing geniuses. Off they go to Harvard, where Silas pursues his interest in botany and Jamal embarks on securing his Mrs. degree (he’d like the vice president’s foxy daughter to be his “future ex-wife”). Despite a few inspired bits of havoc—one entailing the desecration of a former chief executive’s grave—How High is too lazy to be a comedy, too conventional to be a head movie. It’s one of hundreds of Animal House stepchildren, with a cameo from the Bachelor Party donkey but no fugitive appearances, sadly, from our much missed ODB.

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