1 January 2002

Gillian Armstrong: Shades of Gray

Gillian Armstong hopes by the time you read this, there will be no need to introduce CHARLOTTE GRAY, the acclaimed Australian director’s latest film and her first in four years. If life has followed the script, word of mouth (not to mention a healthy dose of good ol’ fashioned movie marketing) following the Christmas US release of the $US25 million World War II drama should have thrust Armstrong‘s film into Acadamy Awards contention, and her star Cate Blanchette into the running for another Best Actress nomination.

"I'd be hopeful for Cate,” the 51 year old director of 14 feature films told Australian Style in December last year. Our audience with Armstrong takes place at a Bondi hotel, a week after locking off the final print and two days before flying out to LA to begin the US publicity tour, a task the director faced alone, with Blanchette due to give birth to her first baby.

"The poster has just gone up on every bus stop in LA,” said Armstrong. “We open in America on December 28 in a select group of cinemas and then we go wide in January, which means we become eligible for the Oscars. That's why we've been working day and night to finish the film, but we literally only finished the mix three weeks ago. I mean, we had to screen a workprint with a ‘temp’ mix for all the long-lead magazines in America, and we’ve only locked off the final print ourselves a week ago.”

Film biz jargon aside, Armstrong says “CHARLOTTE GRAY is the best role for a woman I’ve read in more than 15 years." And Armstrong has drawn a Golden Age stature for Blanchette as a young idealistic Scot who joins the British secret service and is dropped behind enemy lines into Vichy France, in a story that no-one - bar Osama bin Laden himself - could have predicted would be so timely by the time it reached our screens. CHARLOTTE GRAY's World War II setting, where neighbours were forced to choose between collaboration or resistance; its anti-fascist message; its depiction of ordinary people living through extraordinary times and its life-and-death themes are all telescoped into an cracking suspense drama. What could have been just another period romance now resonates with themes that are contemporary. 

"We had our US test screenings before September 11," says Armstrong, "and the studio said the big problem was with younger audience members who apparently didn't understand Charlotte's motivation of a young woman with a sense of duty, wanting to do something for her country. Now there's been such an awful change in America we think they might now understand Charlotte’s situation and what it is like to live under a threat."

“And it’s a very challenging role, not just for the emotional depth that Charlotte goes through but also because it requires playing two roles, two people.” Blanchette is required to establish the character of Charlotte, a Scot in war-time London. Dropped behind enemy lines into Nazi-occupied France, she must then play Charlotte undercover, masquerading as “Dominique” to the locals, joining the resistance and befriending Billy Crudup’s Julien, a communist freedom fighter, and his crusty dad, played by Michael Gambon. 

Armstrong, who has lived in Bondi with her two teenage daughters since the mid-1980s, moved to London for nine months to make CHARLOTTE GRAY, shooting at the legendary Pinewood Studios and on location in the south of France in early 2001, before returning home to Sydney for post-production. As editing progressed Armstrong says she realised she had something very special in Blanchette’s performance. Blanchette was denied at the 1999 Oscars when her scorching interpretation of ELIZABETH lost to Gwyneth Paltrow for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Armstrong, backed by US distributor Warner Bros, decided our Cate deserved another crack at the gold statuette with CHARLOTTE GRAY.

"We had to make decision whether or not to try for the whole Academy thing, and I felt that for Cate - because she's so extraordinary in the film and she's in every second frame from beginning to end - that she had to be given the chance.” The film reunites the pair for the first time since 1997’s OSCAR AND LUCINDA, Armstrong’s last film, but the one that would launch Blanchette’s international career. Blanchette has since made no less than 13 features including ELIZABETH, THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY, THE GIFT, THE MAN WHO CRIED and eagerly awaited projects like THE SHIPPING NEWS and RUN LOLA RUN director Tom Tykwer’s HEAVEN, which opened the Berlin Film Festival last month (February 02).

A UK-Australian co-production based on Sebastian Faulk’s 1998 British best-seller, CHARLOTTE GRAY is an unusual project in that the author picked the star and the star cast the director. Faulk had sent a copy of his book to Blanchette and told the film’s producers she would be perfect for the lead role. Blanchette, in turn, knew that the ideal person to direct the movie would be a woman, and one known for her ability to bring strong female characters to the screen. It would become Armstrong’s “dream project”.

"After they (the producers) got the rights they went to Cate about it and it was Cate that suggested me as director, which of course was very kind of her.

 “Working with Cate again was fantastic - we have a kind of short-hand, we know each other’s humour, we can read each other’s faces and know instantly how we're feeling, so it was really a gift to work with her again but the whole cast were just really superb.” Face to face Armstrong is talkative, personable, straightforward and forthcoming. There are no visible airs or graces, and the Hollywood hype is kept to a minimum. But with a US$25 million-dollar budget that includes several epic action scenes, Armstong admits that CHARLOTTE GRAY is the largest scale production she's directed. "I suppose it is - I finally got my helicopter shots and I finally got to blow up a train!”

After more than a quarter century directing intelligent, character-driven features, Armstrong is hoping CHARLOTTE GRAY will be the major international hit that has thus far eluded her. After achieving critical acclaim – and 11 AFI Awards - for her first feature, an adaptation of Miles Franklin’s MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979) (which also launched the career of Judy Davis), a more likely career path would have seen her work in England and Europe. Instead, she made a faltering move to Hollywood with the poorly received Mel Gibson vehicle MRS SOFFEL (1984), returned to Australia to make well-received films such as HIGH TIDE (1988) and THE LAST DAYS OF CHEZ NOUS (1992), before heading off to give Hollywood another go – this time with an all star cast in the fifth film version of the literary classic, LITTLE WOMEN (1994).

Since then, however, Armstrong has made just two films, her widely-praised social documentary NOT FOURTEEN AGAIN (1996) and her film version of Peter Carey’s OSCAR AND LUCINDA (1997). Indeed CHARLOTTE GRAY again shows Armstrong’s preference for novel adaptations. 

“What I like about novels is that they are less predictable and the stories are richer and more interesting and the person has put a lot of passion into it. A novelist will spend six or seven years getting their work right. With many screenwriters, it's an easy field, anyone can do it, you do for the money and you write what they want. I read so many scripts where I can tell by page 10 what's gonna happen.

"It's really often a minefield adapting a screenplay because the people that love a book will never be happy with what you do because everyone has their own vision when they read a book. There will certainly be a lot of people who have read Charlotte Gray who won't be happy, we've made quite a few changes... luckily the novelist is happy.

"I'm a good script editor and I can suss a phoney line, but I can't write scripts. I think you should accept what you're good at and just try to work with people who are brilliant in their own field.”

The film has a European resonance and early reviews in the US, it has to be said, have been unkind, complaining mainly about the decision to make the film entirely in English. Armstrong is ready for the criticism.

"The more I thought about it, the more unlikely it seemed because I'd have to direct the children in French and it's not a film that will play particularly well in France anyway, being about a time and place (Vichy France and its collaboration with the Nazis) that is still very difficult for the French."

"But I did have the whole script translated into French and Cate said, 'OK, you want me to learn French', and her French would have had to be near perfect because that was the whole point - you had to have perfect French to be recruited as an agent. And you know even with her great ear for language, for every line we would have needed a French dialogue coach on the set, and then I thought I'm not the greatest French speaker, how am I going to direct the French? So we needed a different solution.

Armstrong was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t as subtitles would have marked the film strictly arthouse and severely limited its distribution possibilities. "And over half the film would have had to be subtitled - Warners were not very happy when they heard about it.”

After such a large scale production, is she looking for something more intimate now? "Well it always comes back to the story. I mean it was fun with this to say yeah, lets do the tanks, and let's blow up the train. I've done a shoot-out before but this was my first big explosion. It was fun to do the action stuff. If it's just two people in a room but it's marvellous story, then that's just fine.

With such a large production, we ask what elements of the film have the stamp of Gillian Armstrong. "Every single thing - you take the blame and you take the praise.” As you read these words you already know the verdict. In the name of shameless parochialism, here’s one vote at least for CHARLOTTE GRAY.


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