As Allied opens, Brad Pitt parachutes so gently and quietly onto a stretch of Moroccan desert that at first you think he might be dead. And maybe he sort of is — maybe he has to be. Pitt’s Max Vatan is a pinched, terse figure in the first act of Robert Zemeckis’s World War II thriller.
Arriving in Casablanca, the Canadian assassin — a member of Britain’s Special Operations force — meets Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), the French Resistance agent who will pretend to be his wife, as they embark on a mission to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. She knows all the rules of deception, of pretending to love someone; her face lights up when she first sees him, as if they’ve known and adored each other for years. After settling in their modest flat, she sends him to the roof of their building, because in Morocco, that’s where “the husbands go after they’ve had sex with their wives” — but she also makes sure to visit him on that roof for a good night snuggle, so the neighbors will see. Max plays things close to the vest, and never lets on too much; he’s a pro who’s there to do a job. She, by contrast, goes all in. “You’re very thorough,” he tells her. “That’s why I’m still alive,” she replies. And then, when things get too intimate between them, he resists, saying that sex between operatives is a mistake. “Actually, Max,” she tells him, “the mistake people make in these situations isn’t fucking — it’s feeling.”
You can maybe guess what happens next. Profanity notwithstanding, Allied is an old-fashioned romantic thriller of the sort nobody makes anymore, the kind where glamorous men and women pose as people they’re not, and then discover that they’ve become the people they’ve been pretending to be, all while wondering about each other’s true identities. After that opening act in Morocco, we flash forward to wartime England, a few months later, which is when the real fun begins. The story, written by Steven Knight and apparently based on some real wartime derring-do, has overtones of Hitchcock’s Notorious and Suspicion, as well as Casablanca, and even Charade. (It also recalls, at certain points, Zemeckis’s own domestic thriller What Lies Beneath.) Allied is not as good as the classics, to be sure, but like its heroes it’s pretty close to what it’s pretending to be. It’s the kind of film you can send your parents or grandparents to the next time they complain that they don’t make ’em like they used to.
Allied wears its conventionality on its sleeve, and proudly so. But in between what may be familiar plot developments, Zemeckis and his cast find ways to pull us in, and even keep us guessing as to these characters’ true natures. Marianne helps Max come into his own, pulling him out of his mission-focused bubble. But she’s so good at deception, so good at playing the part, that we, too, begin to wonder just what is in her heart. All along the way the film captures us with little details. In Morocco, Marianne tells officials that Max doesn’t speak much English — so that whenever a Nazi speaks English to them, you feel like you’re about to have a small heart attack as Max works out how to respond.
It’s also — dare I say it — moving. Zemeckis directs with quiet, deliberate precision, but that makes the occasional burst of wild emotion more effective. Giving birth to their child in a London hospital — c’mon, you just knew these two were going to end up having a kid together — as German bombs fall all around them, Marianne grabs Max and yells, “C’est moi! This is really me, as I am before God!” It’s a big, wildly melodramatic moment, but it works because the film has placed us into a world of extremes — where people veer between reticence and madness. We might even overlook the fact that the Germans weren’t really bombing England in 1943. And the two leads are excellent, particularly Cotillard, whose reserve is often used by filmmakers to keep us guessing as to her characters’ true intentions. As Marianne, her bursts of emotion are both touching and curious: The more we see of her “true” self, the more we wonder about what we were seeing before. Allied doesn’t deliver any particularly shocking twists or turns; the real surprise here is how much a well-told, well-acted tale can still resonate.