Polar opposites compose many great stories, and love and war are two of the most timeless. “Allied” is hardly the first film to depict a wartime romance that blossoms in Casablanca, but despite its familiarity, Robert Zemeckis’s World War II romantic thriller is an enthralling snapshot of history. Its rich visuals and strong performances overcome its problematic finale, tonal shifts and heavy sentiment.
Canadian agent Max (Brad Pitt) parachutes into Casablanca at the height of Nazi supremacy in 1942. His mission? Assassinate a German ambassador. His accomplice? Beautiful former French resistance agent Marianne (Marion Cotillard). They role-play husband and wife, but their public “marriage” quickly evolves into a real romance in private. After the assassination, Max brings Marianne to London, where they marry, have a daughter and achieve domestic paradise despite nightly bombings. Max is called back to duty when superiors intercept coded messages transmitted to Berlin by a “fraulein,” or woman, from his neighborhood. He has 72 hours to prove his wife isn’t a German spy, and if he fails, he must execute her with his own hands.
Pitt, like his character, balances a stern façade with emotional transparency. Max is deadly and calculating in action, but paranoid and delicate when he begins to doubt Marianne’s identity. Cotillard evokes both the “femme fatale” who haunted DiCaprio’s dreams in “Inception,” and the threatened innocence of Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.” She equals Max in tactical skill, and hints at a tormented past — she narrowly escaped execution by Nazis in Vichy France. Her character mirrors the movie: multifaceted and intriguing.
Zemeckis, who crafted “Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump” and “Cast Away,” showcases a breadth of creativity behind the camera. When Max and Marianne make love in a car in the Sahara, a sandstorm envelops them in a roaring blur of orange and black. Zemeckis’ camera circles the two lovers, turning faster and moving closer before finally gliding out the window into a dark, sandy abyss. When a Blitz siren interrupts their London wedding, Zemeckis cuts to nurses racing Marianne out of a burning hospital before she gives birth while German bombs burst over the city. Scenes like these evoke a fairytale atmosphere, immersing us in the action of wartime London.
Zemeckis effectively portrays the timeless contrast of love and war, but his pacing and tone grow problematic. Max learns Marianne might be a spy at the film’s midpoint, and he springs into action. Zemeckis maintains long emotional pauses and gradual suspense, but his craft no longer matches his narrative. He directs action, however, with style and agility and is unlikely to lose many viewers juxtaposing this style against slow romantic drama.
After several violent action sequences, “Allied” climaxes, disappointingly, with a heated argument that is mostly off camera. Its tragic conclusion will seem realistic to students of history, but defies its fairytale tone. Audiences who enjoyed the romantic sentiment will long to see the characters’ love overcome war, but will be let down.
Despite its flaws, “Allied” is a graceful and gripping historical thriller. It pays homage not just to “Casablanca,” but a bygone style of filmmaking. Zemeckis’ characteristic sentiment occasionally overwhelms, but “Allied”’s bold visuals, variegated pacing and strong performances elevate its narrative.
Perhaps for the better, “Allied” never solves its central conflict. Millions during the war longed for individual love to overcome global strife. Some emerged with moving stories of relationships that overcame their circumstances, but others saw their starry aspirations crash back to Earth like Blitz planes over London. Max and Marianne embodied a contradiction of romance and violence, dedication and deception, Allies and Axis, hope and fatalism. Zemeckis puts these opposing poles onscreen with memorable style, but avoids their broader implications. He’s content to simply tell one story.