Allied review: Pitt and Cotillard battle the Nazis and fall preposterously in love

More than a few old-school war-movie cliches get a pummelling, but Robert Zemeckis doesn’t quite recover his old movie-making mojo

Is this real? Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied. Photograph: Paramount Pictures

Film Title: Allied

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Betts, Marion Bailey, Matthew Goode

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 124 min

Tue, Nov 22, 2016, 13:30

   

For a large part of this century, Robert Zemeckis has devoted himself to a bizarre class of motion capture – that horrible Christmas Carol, that queasy Beowulf – that dragged children through every grim corner of Uncanny Valley. Allied sounds like a return to traditional beats for the great entertainer.

It’s a war film set in the real war (the one with Nazis and swing music). It features two of the biggest movie stars of our era: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The tabloids even made up stuff about the film launching a starry relationship for the ages. You know? Like Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra did.

Bizarrely, Allied looks as if it has been plucked from the same hard-drive that houses Zemeckis’s The Polar Express. What have they done to Pitt? Face stiff and gauzy, he comes across like a digitally remodelled version of himself. Cotillard, who is in no need of any enhancement, seems almost as unreal and insubstantial.

There is no weight to the images. There is no texture to the photography. The sense of otherness is enhanced by sets that seem proud to be sound-stage constructions or computer-generated facades.

For all that, the film does deliver adequate distractions. The blend of the familiar (evil Germans versus plucky Allies) and the eerie (actors that seem forever somewhere else) is singular enough to set this espionage romp apart from the everyday chaff. After all, where else are you going to see Cotillard, in full ball gown, discharge a Sten gun at staircase packed with senior Nazis?

Zemeckis and Steven Knight, his busy screenwriter, set out their stall early by beginning the adventure in an ersatz version of Casablanca (you can make the connection for yourself). Pitt is a Canadian intelligence officer named Max Vatan. Cotillard is a French resistance fighter called Marianne Beausejour. Not previously introduced, they use all their tradecraft to convince as a married couple who sympathise with the Nazi occupiers. As their mission progresses, however, the façade is kicked aside and the passion becomes genuine.

Their first love scene has a theatrical absurdity that could sit comfortably in a Baz Luhrmann film. Parked in a sandstorm, Max and Marianne writhe and moan while the vehicle is hammered by successive surges of pathetic fallacy. They’ll want to keep the windows tightly closed. Sand can cause serious chaffing if caught between mutual sources of friction.

Anyway, the relationship survives their mission and – against the advice of senior officers – they marry and settle in a nice bit of Hampstead. He trundles into work at Whitehall. She raised a child who, if he takes after these parents, will not want for romantic attention in later life. Then suspicions arise about Marianne’s trustworthiness.

Knight’s plot is just about twisty enough to maintain interest. In the final 15 minutes, however, it strains the audience’s own loyalty in ways that cannot have been intended.

There is fine support from Simon McBurney and Jared Harris as, respectively, sinister superior and Blimpish superior. The depictions of the Blitz oversell the loosening of societal norms (Was there really that much open drug snorting and unremarked homosexuality?) as they highlight the surrealism of aerial violence over sedate north London suburbs.

Phew! They don’t make them like this any more. Come to think of it, they never have made them quite like this. A most unfamiliar return to the familiar.