SPIES are SO romantic

124 min. | R

For a movie about war, Allied displays an impressive quietude. The opening few minutes especially are remarkably serene… and remarkably tense. A man in World War II-era fatigues parachutes into a desert at dawn, hikes along the dunes, then along a deserted road, until dust on the horizon announces a car’s approach. Is it his doom or his contact? When the car stops and he gets inside, the man and the driver say nothing to each other for a long while. It’s subdued and gripping, as if everything that might have been said already had been dispatched with long ago. Or, perhaps whatever mistrust that might hover between them isn’t worth interfering with what needs to be done.

It’s French Morocco in 1942, and this marvelous cinematic ethos continues as the man, Canadian intelligence operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), connects with his new spy partner, French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard). They’ve never met, have only the vaguest description of what each other looks like. But they instantly fall into a public performance as a married couple in order to carry out their mission to assassinate a Nazi official. It’s thrilling in the most romantic way, evocative of old-fashioned movie notions of sacrifice and duty and the glamorous mystique of spies, perhaps one inspired by Casablanca itself. (Yes, their let’s-kill-a-Nazi mission is happening in that very city.)

Director Robert Zemeckis’s trademark sentimentality is on full show here. The only bit of mawkishness in the script by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) involves Max and Marianne’s baby being born a year later amidst German bombing in London, and yet that bit somehow works: “This is incredibly cheesy,” I was thinking, but it’s ultimately moving and I definitely had something in my eye by the end of it.

That’s because we get genuinely invested in Max and Marianne’s relationship. Of course they fall in love in Casablanca, and now they’re married and raising the kid in London, where he is in the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF). But we’d been warned by Marianne herself that perhaps we shouldn’t trust anything. Back in Casablanca on the night they met, Max marveled at how good she was at getting along with the German officers she already had befriended as part of the mission. That’s because, she explained, she actually really liked them. “I keep the emotions real,” she said. We have a hint, too, that Max is good at truly liking people so he doesn’t have to fake it.

That comes back to haunt Max and Marianne when their loyalties are called into question by the RAF. There are still a few good bits of stuff blowing up to come—a damaged German bomber slowly falls from the skies over London is full of exquisite tension— but the action of war now mostly takes a backseat to the emotional turmoil that inevitably occurs when spies, who depend on the success of their lies, must trust one another.

Until the final moments, you won’t know whom to trust, either. With Allied, Zemeckis has created an elegant potboiler that balances psychological and physical suspense. It seems to hail from another cinematic era, one in which silences heavy with suspicion spoke louder than words.