Shining Through jumps off from the hokiest premise imaginable — set in World War II, it’s about an eager working-class girl from Queens (Melanie Griffith) who becomes a spy by posing as German domestic (I Was a Housemaid for the OSS!) — but for a while the picture has such confidence and verve that you’re ready old-movie trick in the book. On the eve of the war; Linda Voss (Griffith) lands a job as secretary for imperious WASP lawyer , Ed Leland (Michael Douglas), and figures out in about five minutes that he’s some sort of government agent. Linda, who grew up speaking English and German (her mother is a Irish American and her father a German Jew), is so zealously overobservant that she can’t keep her mouth shut. There’s a mischievous twinke in her eye when she tells Leland that she knows the letters he’s been dictating are form of code — and, what’s more, that she realizes it because she’s seen so many Hollywood espionage thrillers.
The script, based on Susan Isaacs’ best-seller, gives Griffith a chance to show some wit, and she’s more than up to the task. Her showdowns with the glowering. Tight-lipped Leland, whose mouth turns down in misery al all the responsibility he has, are terrific comic set pieces. The two become lovers, but it isn’t until the war breaks out that she learns that Leland is a high-ranking colonel with the OSS, and that he cares more about his espionage activities than he does about her.
With the romance apparently over, Linda brashly volunteers her services as an undercover agent. At meeting with Leland an some OSS officials, she convinces them that she can get the information they’re after if they’ll allow her to infiltrate the home of an important Nazi officer. Can we buy child-voiced Melanie Griffith as a domestic spook who carries a purse with a trick bottom? Perhaps. What’s harder to believe — because the movie doesn’t believe it either — is that outcome of her mission actually matters.
Linda is sent to Berlin for two weeks with the vague assignment of photographing ”documents.” The plan soon goes dangerously awry. In Berlin. She screws up her cooking tasks for a Nazi dinner party and ends up becoming the nanny for another German officer (Liam Neeson). Sequestered in his pastoral village. She loses all communication with Leland and with her crusty contact in Berlin (John Gielgud). She is thrust into social settings she didn’t count on and finds herself juggling false identities.
Here, is in many vintage thriller, the documents are little more than a MacGuffin, an excuse for intrigue. Yet for this sort of device to be effective, we need to be aware — in virtually every scene — of how much the plot hinges on it. (Casablanca wouldn’t work if weren’t thoroughly convinced Humphrey Bogart gave up Ingrid Bergman in order to win World War II.) Shining Through has some clever scenes (such as a mix-up in a fish market), but the story is just a rusty Rube Goldberg contraption. It’s always a little blurry what Linda’s up to: Is she trying to get the documents, locate her Jewish cousins (who are in hiding from the Nazis), or simply escape with her hide intact?
Joely Richardson brings a luminous, avid-eye glamour to the role of Linda’s aristocratic German comrade, even if the twists in their relationship don’t carry enough weight. Where the movie truly misses and opportunity is in the pairing of Griffith and Douglas. These two have a genuine chemistry her cotton-candy softness undermines his bearish surliness. Douglas, though, spend thought, spends so much time offscreen that when the two are reunited it just feels like an obligatory climax. Shining Through is a respectable attempt of old-fashioned corn. It has pace, colorful performers, and a pleasing period-piece vastness — everything, in fact, but the big emotional surges that are the main reason for this sort of picture to exist. B-