The French title is much more evocative of the themes and mood of this World War II thriller than the pot-boiling English title. The women of the shadows are women of the French Resistance who carried out dangerous missions but were overshadowed by the reputations of the men. However, there have been a number of films with women at their centre, Odette (with Anna Neagle) and Carve Her Name with Pride (with Virginia McKenna) in the 1950s, Jean-Pierre Melville's L'Armee des Ombres with Simone Signoret and Carole Bouquet as the real-life Lucie Aubrac in Claude Berri's film.
This time there are five women. The plot is drawn from actual events. The central character, Louise, played very tellingly by Sophie Marceau, died in 2004 at the age of 98.
It is easy to dismiss this film (as did some younger reviewers) as traditional film-making with familiar themes and style, not 'adventurous' film-making. The answer is that a solid narrative is presented in a classical style that is evocative of the film-making of the period while benefitting by being able to be more forthright about behaviour and being able to present harsh realities more directly.
With an opening that shows the Resistance in action in blowing up a train but also showing the dangers, the attacks of the German soldiers and summary executions, the film soon goes to England to explain the activities directed by London in France. Louise, and her brother Pierre (Julien Boisselier), have to recruit four women to rescue a British geologist from a German hospital in Normandy. He has important information for the forthcoming DDay landing.
The execution of the mission is well portrayed, the women disguised as nurses and two (Julie Depardieu and Marie Gillain) performing a song and strip show for the patients. While the mission is successful, the women are told to stay in France and to kill the SS officer who wants to prove to Rommel that Normandy rather than Calais is the place for the invasion.
The film then becomes an effective spy thriller with the attempts to kill the officer, played by German actor, Moritz Bleibtreu, as ruthless but not entirely inhuman. However, there are some graphic torture scenes to remind us that interrogations were cruel and painful.
Perhaps the ending is rather melodramatic as Louise emerges from the smoke at a railway station and suddenly disappears into the smoke, a woman of shadows who can move into prohibited areas because the men underestimate the women.
Interesting to see such a story told more than sixty years after the events.
Becker filmsOut August 7
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.