If Lifetime TV (the cable station “for women”) had the lavish budget to produce a World War II-period romance novel on film, it would probably look like Charlotte Gray.

Director Gillian Armstrong (Oscar and Lucinda) opens her film with visual promise: We watch the lavender fields of Britain blur by what ends up being the window of our heroine Charlotte Gray’s (Cate Blanchett, The Fellowship of the Ring) train like a late-period Monet painting gone abstract. As we find her in the train, her strong profile could be an icon of female heroism. She’s a serious woman who works “in surgery.” For some reason, she’s also an ardent Francophile who finds nothing amusing about the German occupation of France (though she has a light Scottish brogue, she speaks French like a native). She’s propositioned by a stranger on the train to attend a mysterious meeting in London and, true to the British tradition of amateur espionage (and early Hitchcock films), she subsequently accepts an offer to become a British spy for the French resistance in Vichy France.

In the hands of better storytellers, Charlotte’s tale could offer something interesting, but instead it sinks into typical romance novel conventions. Charlotte meets a young British flyboy and it’s head-over-heels love at first sight. Of course, his plane goes down in France and Charlotte’s off to find her lost true love and serve her country.

Armstrong’s strong suit has been her intimate stories of Australian women and relationships, from her breakout film My Brilliant Career (1979) through to The Last Days of Chez Nous (1993). But in this film, she finds herself hobbled by the stock story of Sebastian Faulk’s dime-store romance smothered in the pretty pictures and sweeping moves of Dion Beebe’s (Holy Smoke) cinematography.

As always, Cate Blanchett does excellent work with what she’s given, but she’s not given much. Her face plays through all of the ranges of passion, from patriotic to amorous to maternal. But unless you’re a true fan, even she can’t make this film worthwhile.

Perhaps if you live on a diet of romance paperbacks and keep your TV glued to Lifetime with a hanky handy, you might like this movie, but Charlotte Gray pales in comparison to Armstrong’s Australian work.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Birmingham Theatre (Old Woodward, S of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.

E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].

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