Dir: Gillian Armstrong. UK-US. 2001. 121mins

With such elegant novel adaptations previously like Little Women and the under-rated Oscar And Lucinda, it is disappointing to see film-maker Gillian Armstrong falter somewhat in her respectable but muddled film of Sebastian Faulks' best-selling novel Charlotte Gray. The story of a Scottish woman who volunteers to go into Vichy France as a secret agent in 1942, Charlotte Gray is a thrilling book tinged with romance and the horrors of war. Screenwriter Jeremy Brock has made some fundamental changes in the screenplay, notably a simplification in the character of Peter, Charlotte's English lover, and a change in which one of the men she ends up with. The shift in emphasis, no doubt effected to make the film more audience-friendly, confuses the motivations of Charlotte's character and brings a phoney note to the film.

Moreover, even with the diluted proceedings, Armstrong's pacing is off, with longueurs in the middle and a rushed ending which feels like it was tacked on to satisfy test audiences. Upscale viewers will be drawn to the whole package, but reviews will be mixed and word-of-mouth will favour other end-of-year British prestige pictures like Gosford Park and Iris.

Cate Blanchett is her usual radiant self as Charlotte, a Scottish woman who travels to London to help with the World War 2 effort. She soon falls in love with RAF pilot Peter (Penry-Jones), but later is horrified to discover that he has been shot down over France and, if alive, is being sheltered by the Resistance. A fluent French speaker, Charlotte enlists as a trainee agent and accepts a mission as a courier into France under the codename Dominique. She sets up in a small village where she aids the local Resistance headed by Julien Levade (Crudup). For her cover she poses as the housekeeper to his father (Gambon).

All the time searching for clues as to whether Peter is alive or dead, Charlotte hides two Jewish children whose parents have been deported to concentration camps. But as Nazis occupy the town, Charlotte and Julien are caught in a tightening net from which they must save the children and themselves.

Armstrong creates some memorable moments, most movingly Charlotte's final gift to the children, and she has a fine cast at her disposal (although the wide range of accents is disconcerting). Billy Crudup's French accent is more Eastern European, while Blanchett retains a light Scottish accent both in England and France. The production itself is top notch, with the expert Dion Beebe behind the camera and a stirring score by Shakespeare In Love Oscar-winner Stephen Warbeck.

Prod cos: Ecosse Films, Pod Films, FilmFour
US dist: Warner Bros
Int'l sales: FilmFour International
Exec prods: Paul Webster, Robert Bernstein, Hanno Huth
Prods: Sarah Curtis, Douglas Rae
Scr: Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks
Cinematography: Dion Beebe
Prod des: Joseph Bennett
Ed: Nicholas Beauman
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Main cast: Cate Blanchett, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, Rupert Penry-Jones, Anton Lesser, James Fleet