LONDON: No one could have predicted the sombre career trajectory of Robert Zemeckis, who made his name with instant pop classics such as Back to the Future – weightless, but brilliantly worked out. His later films have the same mechanical ingenuity but not the high spirits. Some of the best, such as Cast Away and Flight, show machines crashing to earth. That image recurs in Allied, which is typical of later Zemeckis both in its technical virtuosity and its underlying chill. A romantic spy thriller, it’s a conscious throwback to Old Hollywood; its first act set in Casablanca during World War II. Here, the Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) meets up with Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who poses as his wife as part of an assassination plot. When it comes to espionage, Marianne is a method actress before her time – and so the fake romance becomes a real one, a little too quickly for comfort. Like most Zemeckis films, Allied has a studied gloss that falls short of glamour, as if he had storyboarded every last shot.
Much digital trickery is involved, most spectacularly in a love scene in a locked car during a sandstorm: the camera impossibly circles the actors, whose clothes fly off in a series of jump cuts. This flourish typifies Zemeckis’ way of tying a bow on things, rather than trusting his actors to convey emotion. Then again, the degree of mutual passion between Max and Marianne is uncertain, and the lack of chemistry between the stars might be part of the point. Defying the conventions of the spy genre, Zemeckis has little interest in making deception sexy. When he’s forced to suspect Marianne’s motives, Max is sickened, not intrigued; the ever-boyish Pitt allows himself to seem hot-tempered but basically insecure in a way not many leading men would. For all the effort poured into period recreation, the world of the film remains abstract, bordering on fantasy. Zemeckis and his screenwriter Steven Knight portray Max’s sister (Lizzy Caplan) as an out-and-proud lesbian, while barely touching on what this would. For all the effort poured into period recreation, the world of the film remains abstract, bordering on fantasy. Zemeckis and his screenwriter Steven Knight portray Max’s sister (Lizzy Caplan) as an out-and-proud lesbian, while barely touching on what this would entail in 1943 London. But Zemeckis’ commitment to abstract logic is also a grim strength. Max and Marianne may be fighters in a noble cause, but knowing this director’s insistence on balancing the books, we can presume that they will pay a price for their shared bloodshed.