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Friday, 28 December, 2001, 16:08 GMT
Blanchett's resourceful Charlotte Gray
Billy Crudup and Cate Blanchett
Billy Crudup and Cate Blanchett: Undercover in France
By entertainment correspondent Tom Brook in New York

The big-screen adaptation of Sebastian Faulks's bestselling novel Charlotte Gray, starring Cate Blanchett, has arrived at US cinemas trying to drum up some post-Christmas business at the box office.

Blanchett plays the title character, a fictional Scottish woman who is an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent working undercover in occupied France during World War II.

Initially, she is drawn to France in an effort to locate a British airman who has been shot down and with whom she has fallen in love.

But her priorities change once she is parachuted into Vichy France and begins to work, initially as a courier, with members of the French resistance.

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett: Great performance in "muddled, prosaic" film

For Blanchett, it was Sebastian Faulks's literary skills that drew her in.

"I think the way Sebastian writes - particularly for women, their interior monologue, the way they talk - is like no other novelist I've ever read," she says.

For the second time in her career, Blanchett joined forces with the Australian director Gillian Armstrong to fashion this wartime romantic drama.

The two last worked together on the offbeat romantic drama Oscar and Lucinda, in which Blanchett starred opposite Ralph Fiennes.

Cinema screens have been inundated with a whole raft of movies set during World War II, but Armstrong has been trying to point out that Charlotte Gray is rather different.

'Inner resources'

She says: "It really is about a human being undercover, and that's very much a really solo task.

"It's not like a normal war film, where you're with a team and it's the guns and the tanks.

"It's about your inner resources."

Blanchett believes the title character undergoes a real transformation.

Cate Blanchett
Blanchett starred opposite Ralph Fiennes in Oscar and Lucinda in 1997

As she sees it, Charlotte Gray "begins the film as an idealist".

"The political systems she trusts and reveres are really flawed and betray her.

"She comes to terms with the ambiguities of life and therefore gains a wisdom, I think."

While Gray is in France, she develops a bond with local French resistance leader Julien Levade.

Logic would dictate that this man would be played by a French-speaking actor.

But that would necessitate subtitles, which are wildly unpopular with US audiences and could depress box office.

So US actor Billy Crudup, last seen in the leading role of rock star Russell Hammond in Almost Famous, has been cast in the role.

Sebastian Faulks
Faulks's latest novel is On Green Dolphin Street

Crudup, a strong actor, found himself in the strange position, as an American shooting on location in France, speaking in French-accented English to try to make his character authentic.

But the actor took it in his stride, declaring: "The only thing I was apprehensive about was the audience's willingness to believe it.

"From my point of view, it was no different from any other role I have done."

Despite the presence of a strong cast that also includes Michael Gambon (who, incidentally, makes no pretence of speaking with a French accent), it really is Cate Blanchett who is required to carry the film.

The actress can currently be seen in two other pictures - playing Galadriel in Lord of The Rings and as an estranged wife opposite Kevin Spacey in The Shipping News.

Charlotte Grey
The Telegraph called Faulks's Charlotte Grey "excruciatingly powerful"
But her role in Charlotte Gray is much more of a showcase for her prodigious talents.

At one point, early in production, the picture had been trumpeted as her vehicle to Oscar glory.

That prospect now looks less certain because US critics have been lukewarm in their praise, finding fault not so much with Blanchett, but with the film itself.

'Incoherence'

The trade paper The Hollywood Reporter dismissed Charlotte Gray as "a prosaic muddle".

The New York Times's critic wrote that Blanchett gave a "radiant, complicated performance", but that could not "compensate for the incoherence and lack of credibility in a movie that leaves an emotional void".

Charlotte Gray is the first film to emerge from a co-production alliance between FilmFour, in the UK, and Warner Bros, a top Hollywood studio.

The less-than-enthusiastic early reviews from US critics do not mark an auspicious start to this co-production pact, which is expected to yield half a dozen projects over the next three years.

Unless Charlotte Gray receives some strong critical endorsements and positive word-of-mouth in the next few days, it will be hard for it make significant headway at the US box office, where it is up against whole raft of end-of-year releases competing for attention.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
'Playing a Frenchman was no harder than other roles'
Billy Crudup speaks to Tom Brook
See also:

07 Dec 01 | Showbiz
Actress Blanchett has baby boy
28 Apr 99 | Entertainment
Cate Blanchett's rise to the throne
27 Nov 98 | Entertainment
Faulks beats Starr in bad sex award
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