Charlotte Gray (2001)

 

 

 

Director:     Gillian Armstrong.

Starring:     Cate Blanchett (Charlotte Gray),  Billy Crudup (Julien), Michael Gambon (Levade), James Fleet (Richard Cannerly),  Abigail Cruttenden (Daisy),  Charlotte McDougall (Sally),  Rupert Penry-Jones (Peter Gregory),  Robert Hands (Borowski),  Tom Goodman-Hill (Business Man at Party),  Michael Fitzgerald (Business Man at Party),  Hugh Ross (Psychiatrist),  Martin Oldfield (Assault Course Instructor),  Nicholas Farrell (Mr. Jackson),  Mike Burnside (Morse Code Instructor),  Damian Myerscough (Gun Instructor),  Miranda Bell (Female Instructor),  Angus Wright (Agent).

a woman decides to join the British SOE to become a British spy in Nazi-occupied France

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

 

Charlotte Gray, while riding on a train, thinks back about World War II.  It all seemed so simple then.  "We were at war.  The Nazis were the enemy.  And because good must triumph over evil, so we would triumph over them. . . . How could we have known that war never trades in such certainties?  For where nothing is unthinkable anything can be true.  Even a lie."

Flashback.  On a train a man named Richard Cannerly speaks with Charlotte.  He is very curious about her and asks where she is going.  She works in London in surgery and is very serious about the war.  She studied in Paris, speaks French fluently and scolds Cannerly when he makes a joke about all the sauerkraut now in that city.   He leaves his business card on her book.  On the back of the card he tells her about a book launch Friday at 14 Southerby Square and hopes she will come.  With two of her friends she attends the book launch.  There she meets a handsome flyer named Peter Gregory.  They talk and we learn that she is from Saint Andrews, Scotland, near Edinburgh.  They take an almost immediate liking to each other.  They are interrupted when Cannerly speaks with her for a moment.  He was very impressed with her commitment to the war effort and wants to keep in touch.  He says that it is difficult to find fluent French speakers for the war effort.  As soon as Cannerly leaves she rushes after her airman who just left.  When she bolts out the door onto the street they meet again. 

In bed Charlotte tries to teach Peter how to speak French.  She is thinking of going to France as "some sort of agent or courier. . ."  She tells Peter that she wants to be brave and courageous just like he is.  Peter tells her that his leave is up and he has to fly over France.  He will be gone for about three weeks. 

Charlotte starts undergoing psychological questioning for being a courier.  In addition, she receives physical training exercises.  She is briefed on the situation in France.  The northern zone is occupied by the Germans, whereas the southern zone is occupied and run by the French out of Vichy.  The Vichy is a Nazi-collaborating government.  It is in the southern zone that the main Resistance is located.  Those who pass all the tests will work in the southern zone.  The greatest protection for the agents will be their cover.  They will learn how to transform themselves into someone completely different. 

Charlotte calls one of Peter's friends about Peter and learns that he went down over France.  There is some hope that he is still alive.  Charlotte goes through more psychological examination and more physical training.  Later Peter's friend calls to tell her that they made radio contact and it is believed he is at a place called Gillesse. 

Charlotte is given all her new identity papers, including certification of non-Jewish heritage.  She also receives a cyanide pill.  She is driven at night to an airplane and told where she will meet her contact in France.  Her story is that her husband is a P.O.W. and she has come south looking for work.  She is told that she has no political believes, rather she just wants to survive the war.  She parachutes at a very low altitude onto a field marked by members of the Resistance holding flashlights.  She drops on two young kids.  The Resistance picks her up.  Her new name is Dominique.  Octave, the man she will be working with, says that his group are communists.  He adds that in London they are all Gaullists. 

The two boys that Dominique landed on are Jewish.  The Germans have taken their parents away.  Octave finds the boys and soon takes an interest in their welfare.  Dominique goes to her meeting place.  The local school teacher takes note of her as she passes by.  Dominique sits down in a caf.  There her contact, a woman, comes in and sits beside her.  After establishing their connections the woman tells Dominique that she thinks she is being followed.  The woman has to leave immediately.  But Dominique asks about Gillesse, which delays her.  As the woman gets up and turns to leave, the French police arrive.  The woman asks Dominique for the package (containing valves) she has for her and then tells her to move away from her.  The police check the papers of the people in the caf and then arrest the woman after examining the package Dominique gave her.   Dominique is very upset over the arrest. 

The local switchboard operator Sophie pays a great deal of attention to the comings and goings of Dominique, who goes to see Octave.  He scolds Dominique for talking with the contact and then gives her a new cover.  She will go to his father's place.  She will be the new housekeeper.  He also tells her to help the two Jewish boys as they are staying at his father's place.  Dominique asks for his real name.  It's Julien.  Dominique walks to the farmhouse and meets Julien's dad Levade.  He puts her immediately to work giving the boys a bath.  They recognize her as the "sky lady".  The boys tells her they want to leave.  They don't like Mr. Levade.  She convinces them to stay. 

Julien comes to the farm house.  The boys asked about their parents and Dominique asks Julien.  The boys' parents were recently arrested and taken to a holding camp in Drancy.  Dominique soon learns that Julien and his father do not get along with each other. 

Dominique meets her English contact.  He is very much in a hurry and a bit rude.  He tells her of a train target.  She is to turn the information over to Octave.  She asks about what happened to the arrested agent and is bluntly informed:  "She's dead." 

The French Resistance blows up the targeted train.  Dominique is with them. They attack the German soldiers guarding the train and then make a quick retreat.  One of the Resistance men is wounded.

Dominique gets on a train bound for Gillesse.  As she waits to get on the train, a whole bunch of German soldiers get off.  She sees the two Jewish boys and has to take them back home.  Along the way she scolds them for being out on their own.  Julien plays with the boys while Dominique hangs up the wash. 

Dominique meets with her English contact again.  There is a drop coming tomorrow night.  She asks him about Peter Gregory.  The contact says he will make inquiries. 

At night outside the farmhouse the school teacher watches Dominique.  German tanks and other vehicles come into town.  The towns people stand by the side of the road watching the procession.  Julien starts shouting out the names of the French "disappeared" as the Germans pass by.  A German threatens to shoot him.  He is saved by Dominique who comes up and kisses him.  The school teacher watches.  Julien tells Dominique that the boys' parents have been moved to Poland. 

Dominque receives a note from her contact and has to go out quickly.  Julien waits for her, but she is with her English contact who has news about Peter.   Julien arrives late at the drop zone.  As he approaches he sees that the Germans have stationed themselves all around the drop zone.  There is nothing he can do.  The drop is made, then the Germans open fire on the Resistance killing everyone.  Julien can only watch.  Dominique's English contact gives her news that Peter is dead.  She sees a photo of a dead man in a British uniform with a very bloody face sprawled in a small tree.  Dominique is stunned.   Julien goes to look at the bodies left behind on the drop zone. 

Still very upset, the next morning Dominique is very short with the boys.  Levade comforts her.  Julien arrives at the farmhouse.  He screams that Dominique told the Germans.  He points his pistol at Dominique, but his father intervenes supporting her story.  Julien leaves. 

Dominique sees the French police arresting people.  And the school teacher is there bragging about how he knows everyone in town.  She confronts her English contact wanting to know who told the Germans about the drop.  He tells her that it could have been anyone of a half a dozen people.  He tells her to keep her knickers on and her trap shut.  He also tells her that she is leaving on Wednesday.  Dominique walks home followed by the school teacher.  She confronts him and he tells her that he wants sex from her in return for not turning in the Jewish boys.  She fights him off telling him that she will see him tomorrow.  He lets her go after she promises to see him. 

Levade and Dominique take the boys to another farmhouse for hiding.  Dominique takes the boys to the attic, tells them to not make any noise and to stay in the attic at all times.  On the way back, Levade comforts Dominique over her guilt feelings that she was involved in a operation that got a lot of people killed.  She tells Levade that she does not know anymore what she is doing in France.

The police, the Germans and the school teacher show up at the farmhouse of Levade.  They ask Levade if he has a certificate of non-belonging to the Jewish race.  Levade tells them no.  Julien protests against the questioning.  The school teachers takes Julien to another room to tell him that they either take his father away or the two Jewish boys.  It's his choice.  Julien very reluctantly decides in favor of the two boys.  He tells the inquisitors that his father's grandparents were Jewish.  His father is taken away. 

A German guard watches over Julien and Dominique.  Dominique tries to console Julien.  Julien wants to know why she really came to France and she tells him about Peter.  The couple knows they have to get to the two boys before the Germans do, so they two start to act as if they were making-out which upsets the guard.  When he goes over to break them up, they overpower him and Julien kills him.  Dominique jumps on her bicycle and rides to the farm, but she is too late.  The Germans are just leaving with the boys. 

The school teacher walks Sophie up the steps to his apartment.  He opens the door with his key.  The school teacher is shot in the head with the blood spraying Sophie behind him.  She runs away in terror.  Julien comes out of the apartment pistol in his hand.  Julien then goes to meet Dominque.  He wants her to go with him to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain.  Dominique won't go.  She feels that she has not accomplished anything to justify her efforts in France.  She says:  "I have to do something."  She tells Julien to go.  He doesn't want to go now, but she keeps insisting.  He leaves. 

She goes to the farmhouse and types out a letter.  The police arrive at the farmhouse.  She keeps typing.  They break into the house as she runs upstairs.  A French policeman, who is friendly with Dominique, goes upstairs to check on all the rooms.  The last room he opens brings him face to face with Dominique's pistol.  He hesitates and then tells the others that he found nothing.  He leaves. 

Levade and the two boys are placed on a train headed to a concentration camp. Dominique rides her bike to the train station.  She arrives just in time to give Levade the letter she typed.   Levade reads the letter to the boys.  It is a letter supposedly written by their mother telling them that she and papa  are safe and that they love them.  Tears run down Dominique's face as she stares at the railway tracks. 

Back in London.  Six months later.  Charlotte works with the homeless caused by the London blitz.  At her apartment she receives a letter.  She goes to a museum where she meets a very alive Peter.  Yes, she got his letter.  He has been in England for a couple of months, in the hospital.  The photo Charlotte saw was that of the plane's navigator.  She tells him:  "It's good you got back."  She also tells him she went to France to find him.  He wants to go away with her, but she says:  "I can't go back. . . I'm sorry."

Back to the present.  Charlotte is on the train heading back to the small French village where she met Julien.  She walks all the way to the farm house where she finds Julien pruning some vines.  He realizes someone is watching him and he slowly turns to see who it is.  They say hello.  They walk toward each other and she tells him her real name:  Charlotte Gray.  They embrace and kiss and Charlotte's face looks oh so happy. 

 

 

Good movie.  Cate Blanchett was marvelous as the main character.  The movie does not explicitly tell you that much.  You have to read a little about the historical background.  But you do learn a lot about the travails of an English spy in Nazi-occupied France and there are enough travails to keep one's interest throughout the film.  Not only does the character face death, but also the death of others around her.  The film covers the Nazi occupation, the Resistance, the British SOE and a bit about the Holocaust. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

      


Historical Background:

 

1940 (July) – Winston Churchill and Hugh Dalton initiate a program called Special Operations Executive to conduct warfare by means other than war itself.  (SOE had over 13,000 people in its organization and worldwide it came to support or supply about a million operatives.)

The first chief of the service was Sir Frank Nelson.

In France SOE operations were carried out by two sections:

1) F Section under British control; and

2) RF Section which was linked to General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French government in exile. Most of the 600 native French agents served in this section.

1940 (September 7) to 1941 (May 10)  --  the London blitz. 

1941 (May 5) – Georges Bgu (1911-1993) was the first SOE agent dropped into German occupied France. He set up radio communications and met the next agents that were parachuted into France. (In all more than 400 F section agents were sent into occupied France.) The agents became arms and sabotage instructors, couriers, circuit organizers, liaison officers, and radio operators.

1942 (April) – Sir Frank Nelson replaced by Sir Charles Hambro.

1942 (later part) – another section (AMF) of SOE operations in France was established in Algiers and operated in Southern France. In all the section sent in around 600 agents.

1943 (around August) – the Cabinet decided to coordinate the activities of both the SOE and the British army. Hambro was very opposed to this idea and so he resigned.

1943 (September) – the former Deputy Head of SOE, Major General Colin Gubbins becomes the new SOE chief.

1944 (June 6) – D Day Allied invasion of France. The SOE had three-man parties dropped into various parts of France to coordinate widespread overt acts of resistance.

1946 – SOE dissolved and its sphere of influence reverted to MI6.

1991 (May 6) – unveiling of the Valenay SOE Memorial at Valenay, France. It marked the fiftieth anniversary of the despatch of F Section's first agent to France. On the memorial's Roll of Honor are the names of 91 men and 13 women.

 

SOE was made from three existing secret departments:

1) Section D, a sub-section of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6);

2) a department of the War Office known as Military Intelligence Research (MI R); and

3) the propaganda organization called Department EH (from Electra House, its headquarters).

 

Its mission was two-fold:

1) encourage and facilitate espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines; and

2) serve as the core of a British resistance movement in case the Germans ever occupied Britain.

 

Training:

The initial training center of the SOE was at Wanborough Manor, Guildford.

Agents working in the field received commando training at Arisaig, Scotland.

Parachute training was provided at Ringway Airport, Manchester.

 

Women in the SOE:

SOE recruited a lot of women from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry.

F Section sent 39 female agents into the field, of whom 13 did not return.

 

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