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ARMSTRONG, GILLIAN – CHARLOTTE GRAY

THE LANGUAGE THING
Gillian Armstrong tells Andrew L. Urban why there’s no French spoken in Charlotte Gray, despite her filmmaking instincts, and why English actors play French roles in a film mostly set in France.


Gillian Armstrong has just checked the special release print of Charlotte Gray that is to be screened for its Australian premiere (May 30, 2002), to ensure that it passes muster by the families of the many Australians who worked on it, especially in post production. It was one of the last films colour graded by the legendary Arthur Cambridge.

She has been handed a copy of my review of the film and now she’s on her mobile phone to me, telling me firmly that despite what I say about Cate Blanchett’s “less than steady Scottish accent” some very fussy Scots have remarked what a great Scottish accent she had mastered. “Impeccable” was one of the words used. “In England she had a full Scottish accent,” explains Gillian, “but when she goes to France it’s lighter,” which might explain why, in my ignorance, I thought it was less than steady. But the two shades of accent is meant to address the other point of criticism I raise in my review, about the whole issue of Charlotte not speaking French, when the very reason she is sent to France on a dangerous mission is because of her fluency in the language. 

The film is adapted from Sebastian Faulk’s novel about a young Scottish woman Charlotte Gray (Cate Blanchett) who is recruited during 1943 by Section G in London. She is parachuted into France on a small but important mission, but she has her own agenda: to try and find Peter Gregory (Rupert Penry Jones), the missing RAF pilot with whom she had just fallen madly in love. She is dragged into the tragedies of the war through her contacts in the French Resistance, led by Julien (Billy Crudup) and his father (Michael Gambon) - and her love of France is both rewarded and tested. But she can never go back to her previous life. 

"my instinct was to do it in French"

The battery in Gillian Armstrong’s mobile phone is getting a pounding and pedestrians are wondering why this nice lady is sitting in a parked car in suburban Sydney with the door open talking on her phone for so long. But I, for one, am grateful, because she manages to throw light on a critical issue in filmmaking, exemplified by the adaptation of Charlotte Gray. “Look, my instinct was to do it in French and we went through every permutation [trying to make that work],” she explains. “Cate was very gung ho to learn it in French and I had the script translated and then realised it would have meant almost two thirds of the film was in French. She’d had to have it perfect, of course, which was a big ask. And I realised I’d have to have a French cast, including two small kids, and French was my weakest subject at school. I suddenly thought, gawd, I’d be on set with translators and we’d be going back and forth and how do I tell that the delivery has the right emotional content and I realised I just wouldn’t be able to do it. It would have been horrible. 

“Then the distributors went berserk saying two thirds of the film would have to be subtitled, which was farcical for a film aimed at an English language audience. It was a no-win situation. Warner Bros would have pulled out and it wouldn’t have been made with me or with Cate. 

“I went to France in the beginning and could have cast it with French actors, but their English accents were all different, depending on where and how they’d learnt English. Some had American inflections, others were quite British. We heard that they were having similar problems on the set of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin . . . so we felt it was better to unify the accents so that the characters all seem to come from the same place. The French actors were afraid of sounding like cliches or caricatures of Frenchmen.”

"We wanted English actors who could look French"

The casting was driven by these sorts of considerations, in addition to the usual ones of getting talented actors who were otherwise right for the role. Hence the decision, for example to cast Michael Gambon as Levade, Julien’s father. “We wanted English actors who could look French,” says Gillian.

But it was Billy Crudup who had the biggest journey, she says. “He had to lose his American accent and speak a certain way to fit with the others. He worked hard at it…for a while I thought he was into something really strange because I kept hearing him talk in his caravan all the time. I thought he was on the phone doing funny deals or something, until I discovered he was practicing his accent, using tapes.”

Crudup was also the last to be cast, and the least likely. “I hadn’t seen his work,” Gillian says, “but I’d heard about him. His name came up not because of any pressure to have an American in the cast – the film had been bankrolled on Cate’s name – but because we couldn’t find a suitable English actor. Can you imagine Hugh Grant or Ewan McGregor playing a French resistance fighter? And we needed someone with that inner sense of integrity and morality, which Billy has. 

“We sent him the script, through CAA, his agents, who rang back and said we’d hit the jackpot. Billy apparently turns down almost every screenplay, except for a few independent films and he does theatre. He liked the script, so I met with him in America and he really doesn’t want to be a star, he just likes good work.”

Then Gillian returned to Australia and caught Crudup in Jesus’ Son. “I’m very glad I’d met him in person first, because if I’d seen the film I wouldn’t have been so keen…” Not because Crudup’s performance is lacking, she says, on the contrary. “He’s so convincing as an airhead!”

Shooting wrapped exactly a year ago (May 2001) and post production finished at Chrsitmas, pressured by Warner Bros who wanted to start screening it in December for key people, says Gillian. “After Christmas I sort of fell over so I a took a bit of time off, and then got back into the publicity tour…”

"in high spirits and as enthusiastic as ever"

And now, with the film finally almost off her hands, Gillian Armstrong is “reading a few things” that may interest her, but she isn’t saying anything in case it jinxes the project. But she’s in high spirits and as enthusiastic as ever. You can tell by the robust phone interview.

Published May 23, 2002

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Gillian Armstrong
(Photo credit - Bradley Patrkc/Sugarlove Pictures)

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