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Robert Zemeckis used to be on the top of the cinematic world with Back To The Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but the turn of the century saw him directing less and less big hits and more bizarre experiments in family-oriented 3D films that dipped too far into the uncanny valley. Lately he’s been getting his groove back, like with last year’s The Walk, but even there he still felt the need to push visual gimmickry rather than competent storytelling. Now Zemeckis has brought us Allied, an adult-oriented war espionage film that brings the esteemed director back into good graces, even if this new territory doesn’t quite live up to the classic status of his early work.

Starting in 1942 Morocco, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) enters the country in order to assassinate a top Nazi official. Assisting him in this enterprise is Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French Resistance fighter who has been planting the seeds to get them invited as a married couple to a party their target will be attending. The two become romantically entangled in their time together, and Max asks Marianne to come back to England with him to be married. She agrees, and after the operation they begin to build a life together. That is until one day when Max’s commanding officer informs him that Marianne is to be investigated as a German spy. Despite being told not to conduct his own investigation, Max determines that he must find out for himself whether his wife has betrayed him.

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What truly sells this film, aside from the excellent period dress and oppressive wartime atmosphere, are the lead performances from Pitt and Cotillard. Pitt has always shown an impressive range in his choice of roles, but here he pulls off a uniquely satisfying turn as a man who doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a trained liar and manipulator, but Pitt allows just enough of his character’s conflicted emotion to well to the surface without it seeming too obvious to those around him. We understand his torment because we follow him on his journey, but it’s also easy to see how those around him might be fooled into thinking everything is fine. It’s Cotillard, though, who demonstrates why exactly she’s considered one of the best actresses working today. Her character can at any time be either read as genuine or manipulative, and she walks that line so closely that even when the film screams at you what the obvious conclusion to the mystery must be, she manages to keep enough composure to keep you guessing. It’s a performance that plays well to her knack for nuance and subtlety.

It’s rather unfortunate then that the screenplay and set dressing don’t allow much in the way of subtlety. Screenwriter Steven Knight plants a few too many seeds early on that Marianne is all too skilled at lying and manipulation, and the all-too-quick turn of Max from cold skeptic to lovestruck romantic seems questionable at best. It functions as a bit of first act expediency, but it makes Marianne seem suspicious long before she is supposed to. It doesn’t help that Zemeckis can’t help but put giant visual cues into the backgrounds of his English sets, planting suspicion into the minds of the audience well before the central conflict even comes into focus. It’s distracting and ultimately sucks a lot of the initial tension straight out of the film.

That said, what results by the third act is appropriately tense and thoroughly entertaining, primarily because the leads are so well cast and are so game to make the drama work. This is a film that purposely evokes the feeling of a very “Old Hollywood” style of thriller, but Zemeckis is no Hitchcock in that regard. Rather, he is a very competent filmmaker who has tried something new and, despite some failings, largely succeeded in branching out.