Robert Zemeckis’s Allied takes a pulpy premise, the possibility that a WWII-era spy might have to kill his wife for being a double agent, and attempts to mine anguished melodrama from it. Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) meets French agent Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on assignment in Vichy-controlled Morocco, where their cover as husband and wife blossoms into real romance amid plans to assassinate a Nazi governor. This comical setup is played with an entirely straight face, and the filmmakers patiently home in on the manner in which Max and Marianne turn to the other out of battle-scarred weariness as much as desire.
The patience with which the screenplay by Steven Knight builds the couple’s romance adds extra gravity to the eventual revelation that Marianne may be a mole. That protocol demands Max must eliminate his wife should she prove guilty exacerbates the despair and disbelief that immediately overwhelms him. Seeking any reassurance that this is all just some elaborate game meant to test his loyalty, Max finds no solace in his otherwise affable commanding officer, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris), whose friendly personality turns to ice when Max attempts to coax any information from him.
Much of the remainder of the film is a series of visual clues to the flaws in Max’s desperate attempt to maintain normalcy around Marianne while investigating her, minuscule deviations that she, previously established as a hawk-eyed observer, spots immediately. When Max fails to kiss her upon returning home, when he makes love with stiff dispassion, when he stares too ardently at her in conversation with others, her eyes flicker with recognition, and she often compounds his anxiety by calling him out.
Pitt evinces a melancholia practically unseen in his career as we’re treated to scenes of Max’s unsettling professional ability in his swift and uncaring murders and skirmishes. But his exploitation of existing networks to try and find any way to clear his wife are tragic, and in several scenes the man looks on the verge of tears as he pleads with other spies to corroborate her innocence. Cotillard, too, is captivating, lacing even her character’s warmest of smiles with ambiguous menace. Marianne knows something is wrong; the only question is whether she knows why Max is acting the way that he does.
Zemeckis brings to bear his pop-epic scope in what’s otherwise a claustrophobic story. The first scene, of Max parachuting gently into the Moroccan desert to be met on a sand road by a cab, uses large-scale filmmaking to forecast the more intimate mood of alienation and secrecy. Furthermore, Max and Marianne’s carefully planned assassination of the Nazi governor is like a one-act short film unto itself, a procedural that shows off the extent of the agents’ background research for their covers, their multiple-contingency strategy, and their quick-thinking wits.
When the two first make love, they do so while trapped in their car as a sandstorm rages around them, and Zemeckis drops the music from the soundtrack so as foreground the crescendoing roar of the tempest. Allied’s best scene sets Max’s dilemma against the ongoing conflagration of the Luftwaffe’s bombing of London. The filmmakers capture the national sense of determination to keep up a normal life, particularly in a sequence where Marianne throws a party that’s disrupted first by Max nakedly pursuing those he thinks might be Gestapo contacts and then by a sudden burst of anti-aircraft fire that envelops the neighborhood as bombers appear overhead.
Allied, though, suffers in how little suspense it brings to the central question of Marianne’s guilt. What might have been an intriguing psychological thriller about the impossibility of trust between two people employed in wetwork is instead a simplistic, too-linear mystery. Still, Zemeckis occasionally lurches into the larger context of WWII, pulling focus away from personal betrayal to the debilitating impact of total war. So merciless is the intelligence apparatus to which Max belongs that at times it’s hard to tell whether he’s more worried about exonerating his wife or that the machinations of the system will doom her regardless of the truth. The film’s bleak outlook on the naïve notion of innocence in a conflict as vast as WWII scabrously tears down a mythologized epoch to consider the many, all-encompassing ways in which war is hell.