Born in in Amiens, France, in 1912, Odette Marie Céline Brailly was a child of war, her father killed at Verdun in the final weeks of the Great War; her family hailing from the provinces of Picardy and Brittany, always on the paths of war, she later commented there were no men left in her family, so when the war effort called she felt it was her duty to respond.

Moving to England with her husband Roy Sansom, he joined the army at the beginning of the Second World War, leaving Odette and their three children in Somerset, and in 1942 Odette was herself recruited by the Special Operations Executive who wished to use her knowledge of her homeland and her loyalty to Britain to their advantage.

Travelling to France under the codename Lise she acted within a small spy ring before her capture by the German forces, first taken to Fresnes Prison near Paris then later Ravensbrück concentration camp in northern Germany; tortured and held in solitary confinement, she survived and was liberated, and in 1947 married her former superior officer Captain Peter Churchill.

A recipient of the George Cross, the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and a Member of the Order of the British Empire, her story was told in the Odette: The Story of a British Agent by Jerrard Tickell in 1949 and adapted by Warren Chetham-Strode for the screen as Odette, directed by Herbert Wilcox and starring his long-term collaborator Anna Neagle in the title role.

Released in 1950 and now remastered for Studiocanal as part of their Vintage Classics range from a new 4k 16bit scan of the original 35mm monochrome negative, Odette is a piece of its time, an honest depiction of the alternating tedium and pressure of espionage, yet as a drama it is frustratingly dry.

Bookended by an introduction by Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, leader of the French section of Special Operations Executive, and a written testimonial by Odette Churchill, both emphasise that they were but parts of a larger network of whom many did not survive to enjoy the opportunity to tell their stories.

Among those were the group’s radio operator Alex “Arnaud” Rabinovitch, here played by Peter Ustinov, captured and later executed in Rawicz extermination camp in Poland, but there are countless others, and in the archive interview from 1980 included on the disc Odette is humble and reserved, denying her bravery and explaining that all she did was for her children.

Neagle’s subdued performance perhaps a genuine reflection of Odette’s modest personality and approach to her work, unobtrusive so as to avoid undue attention, Wilcox had made over forty films since his debut in 1923 but was caught in a style already antiquated, circumspect to the point of British embarrassment in the pains of passions of the characters.

With little structure, Odette may be an accurate representation of her story but it lacks drama and Wilcox never conveys threat beyond a Riviera holiday even during the torture scenes, with the German officer who tracks her (I Was Monty’s Double‘s Marius Goring) bereft of personality; Secret Army may have been fiction but it was more engaging at every turn.

Also included are a brief newsreel snippet of the marriage of Odette and Peter Churchill in 1947, an edition of These British Faces focusing on Neagle, little more than a time-filler, and an interview with Sebastian Faulks who provides background on the Special Operations Executive, the requirements they expected of their agents and the demands made upon them, and their poor mortality rate.

Odette is available on Blu-ray, DVD and download from Studiocanal



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