While Allied may sell itself as a wartime thriller, that’s probably not the best genre to label it with. I say that because for all of its strengths, unpredictability is rarely one of them. Not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of suspense, and there is one big question that hangs over the movie, but between the overzealous marketing and some very effective foreshadowing, it’s a little too easy to see the tracks ahead of the train. Luckily, even if that does make for a less memorable movie holistically, it’s precisely that sense of inevitability that makes this tale of doomed romance so powerful moment to moment. For spies in this world, love is a death sentence, and watching our two leads defiantly try find a little happiness and raise a family with the weight of a world war on their shoulders underlays Allied’s Golden-Age-of-Hollywood flair with a tense poignancy. It’s a slow, personal and torturous affair that proves a gripping tale, but still a movie that’s a little less exciting than the one you might be expecting.
Directed by the one and only Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump, Cast Away), Allied is a movie dripping in glossy, old-school Hollywood charm. The film opens by dropping us (quite literally) into the hotbed of spies and Nazis that was Casablanca. We meet Brad Pitt’s Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard’s Marianne BeausÃ©jour, two Ally spies meeting for the first time as part of an assassination attempt. Operating under the guise of a married couple, Max and Marianne’s intimate proximity eventually sees them giving in to their feelings, and against their better judgment, sparking precisely the type of romance they had seen bring disaster to their fellow spooks.
Allied is a movie much more interested in examining the effects the world of espionage has on its inhabitants than trading in the complexity one might usually associate with this kind of thriller. Taking its time to unfold over two distinct halves, Allied gradually builds its key relationship as the pair take on a mission, quickly runs you through some happy connective tissue, and then spends the rest of the runtime pulling apart the pleasant little life they’ve built for themselves. This makes for a fairly linear plot, but putting one foot before the other lets the characters grow organically and keeps the exposition to an absolute minimum. Writer Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Locke) cautiously controls the flow of information so you always have the context you need, while delivering new information at a steady and enjoyable pace.
It’s a simple story delicately structured to drip feed just the right amount of suspense and keep you intrigued. Or at least it would be, if most people going in to see it didn’t have the big act 2 bombshell spoiled by all the marketing. Not only does this destroy Knight’s carefully constructed sequence of discovery, but the expectation is that if you see some great revelation in the trailer, it ought to be quarantined to the first 15 minutes of the movie. This stumble risks a restless audience, potentially getting in the way of all the good the first half does as you wait impatiently for the movie you were expecting to begin. It also makes that aforementioned connective tissue feel extremely manipulative instead of being a refreshingly upbeat intermission. Normally, I try to keep external factors out of reviews, but in the end if you go in thinking you’re jumping headfirst into an edge-of-your-seat thriller and are instead led slowly through a sweeping tale of doomed romance, it’s going to get in the way of you enjoying the movie.
Luckily, if that doesn’t upset your experience, the story of Max and Marianne still provides plenty of exciting covert action and intense character drama. The setup and execution of the mission in the first half is particularly entertaining; watching two masters of their craft infiltrate the Nazi community and get the drop on some fascists is a damn satisfying thing to watch. It feels tactical and calculated, but the expectation that they probably won’t survive and diving straight into the mission without any setup keep your eyes glued to the screen. The spy-work on the second half lacks the glitz and adventurous flare of the first, but it makes up for it with a much weightier sense of consequence. As their past and the war start to infect their life together, the war starts to become far more personal and desperate. You feel the urgency of the mission because you care what happens to this couple, but there’s a feeling in your stomach that says maybe they’re all better off just not knowing. Allied excels in taking you to that very conflicted place, and then nails the delivery of what was probably the only ending it could have had, making for a magic third act.
As you may have guessed, Allied is a thing of stylistic beauty. The set design, the costumes and the suave leads remind you why the world of spies is so damn enticing. There are a couple of less than perfect moments of CGI, but it’s easily forgiven amongst the various spectacles Zemeckis dishes up. Whether it’s an endless African desert, or the eerie beauty of the chaotic blitz occurring in the sky above London party-goers, Allied‘s rich and romantic aesthetic is something you drink in deep.
Less impressively designed, though not by a huge stretch, is our lead couple. It’s not that they are poorly conceived, it’s just that the situations the film places them in are a lot more interesting than the characters themselves. Even with them being master spies and kicking Nazi ass, it feels like the story is driving their actions and not the other way around. Max in particular initially comes off as robotic, but thankfully he’s able to turn that around in his frantic act-2 quest. And even in those early stages, Pitt’s charm and confidence make it easy to overlook Max’s stoicism. Conversely, Cotillard is given far more time in the spotlight in the first half, shining far brighter as an assassin in socialite clothing than a stay-at-home mother with a dark past. That could well be down to just how damn perfectly cast she is as the sexy and deadly Marianne.
It’s hard to shake the sense that Allied is a story more singularly focused and less ambitious than the one you probably had in your head. Even so, its main conceit (which I’m not going to spoil any more than the trailers already have) and the expertly pacing with which it is presented ensures that simplicity doesn’t translate to you feeling underwhelmed. Combine that with strong A-list leads, the gorgeous design, and Zemeckis’ All-American cinematic style, and you’re left with a hearty tale of love in a time of war.