I, however, loved this movie. By looking around online just now, I see that most other people hated this movie, so I'm very glad I didn't know that in advance. I'm a rebel. I loved it. Love love love.
So, since folks who read my journal are always asking in comments, "What is it actually about?" when I write my purely emotional reactions, I guess I'll try to tell you a bit about the plot.
Naive young Scottish girl gets recruited to be a SOE (Secret Operations Executive) courier in rural France during the Nazi occupation in World War II. It's sort of a spy story, but not really. She's a courier, just passing messages from one person to another in a small rural village, rather than anything James Bondy. Very low-level spy, I suppose. She doesn't really know what the hell she's doing.
After the first 30 or 40 minutes (more about that later), the movie is filled with the tension stemming from working with the French resistance during the Nazi occupation. You can't know who to trust, who might betray you. People you know sometimes suddenly disappear and are never seen again. Just talking to someone in a cafe can be dangerous. One major plot twist, in particular, amazed me.
I'd say that at its core, it's a story that explores the basic emotional ramifications of the experience of war, not just by soldiers but by everyone. It's also a story that explores the basic emotional ramifications of the experience of growing up, losing one's naivete and seeing the world for the difficult place it is, seeing other people for the complicated creatures they are. Learning that the world is not simple, that the bad guys and good guys don't wear signs to differentiate themselves, and that it's up to you to figure out who you are and where you fit in.
Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup star, and are both simply phenomenal. I'm a huge fan of both of them, actually, in many previous roles. Michael Gambon -- of "Gosford Park" and "The Cook The Thief His Wife & Her Lover" fame, among many others -- is also wonderful in an important supporting role through most of the movie.
The movie has its flaws, but I didn't care about them because its emotional truth spoke to me very strongly. I would presume that this emotional core of the story was taken from the novel upon which the film is based, though I don't actually know. Either way, those emotions worked for me. I felt what the characters were feeling when they feared, when they grieved, when they hated, when they hoped. The final half hour was wonderful and incredibly moving.
The first half hour, on the other hand, was very boring. The movie really didn't hit its stride until 40 or 45 minutes in, which is quite unfortunate. (That's why Shannon wandered away.) Normally, a scene in a movie has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Normally, scenes are like mini-plots, all strung together to create a larger story plot. The beginning of this film, however, seemed to consist of a series of middles. Just vignettes, really ... sometimes including only a line or two of dialogue. Never enough to really draw the viewer into the story. I was finding it un-engaging, but I admire Cate Blanchett and Billy Crudup enough that I was willing to watch more to see if it got better. It did.
There's an interesting (and non-spoilery) review at Salon, here, if you care to read it.