Cassandra's Dream Review
There was a time when a new Woody Allen film was an event - even if for some it was a disagreeable one. But his latest, Cassandra's Dream, came and went causing hardly a ripple, receiving only a very limited theatrical release and generally written-off by critics almost by rote. After a run of largely disappointing work, Allen's decline is now established fact, so less is expected from him and therefore another lacklustre piece is hardly a surprise. Except that Cassandra's Dream is surprising in just how ropey it has turned out, not just in the storytelling but also in the basics of technical execution.
Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) are a pair of dissolute Londoner brothers, both with high aspirations but lacking the wherewithal to make them happen. Ian works in his father's restaurant but wants to be a big-time property developer; Terry is a mechanic in a garage but fancies himself as a bigshot gambler. When Ian becomes involved with the glamorous actress Angela (Hayley Attwell) and Terry incurs a massive gambling debt, their need for cash becomes imperative. Enter rich and successful Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who is having a spot of bother with a business associate Martin (Phil Davis). Howard proposes the solution to all their problems: he will provide the wonga if the lads do him the service of bumping off Martin. You can pretty much guess the rest - existential torment by numbers, in the manner of Allen's previous works Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanours.
The scripting at first feels merely clunky, then callow, then positively amateurish and finally like something from a bad student movie. It's not just that the plot is over-simplistic, telegraphing its every move through the most clichéd of devices - losing heavily at poker, impressing the new girlfriend with unsustainable bullshit - the dialogue consists of one hackneyed line after another - '…it was like crossing a line and there was no way back,' is a typical example. On top of that the working-class London window-dressing - the dog track, flash motors in the backstreet garage, the family banter around the Sunday roast - all seems phoney and unreal. Both McGregor and Farrell struggle to keep up their East End-type accents, with McGregor sometimes sounding like Harry H. Corbett in Steptoe and Son.
Little or no effort is invested into fleshing out the scenario and making it plausible. Whilst Howard is very vocal about the trouble he will get into if Martin is unchecked, he completely dismisses the inherent riskiness in farming out the job to his nephews who have no experience in what is really quite a specialist field. They are not a criminal family and the fact that murder is invariably the choice of those who have a strong propensity towards it, and is eschewed by those who don't, isn't something that bothers Mr Allen one jot. So, unsurprisingly, the brothers' motivational journey towards the act is clumsily done, utterly unbelievable and borders on the unintentionally comic. The aftermath and eventual denouement are, if anything, subject to even worse handling, with the last act telegraphed in the obvious, strident and guileless fashion of a student movie. It all ends so abruptly that when the credits flash up, one is left feeling that there has been some kind of editing error.
How different this is from the careful, subtle and nuanced examination of murder-out-of-necessity in Crimes and Misdemeanours, or even the pared-down re-run of the idea in Match Point, which, though flawed by its plagiarisation of the earlier work, was a watchable movie with a well-realised Patricia Highsmithian ambience and a neat twist ending. To go there a third time would seem hubristic in the extreme and has proved exactly so.
Is there nothing good to say about Cassandra's Dream? Well, Allen still has the clout to assemble an illustrious cast, a legendary cinematographer in Vilmos Zsigmond and a premier composer in Philip Glass, all of whom do the best they can in difficult circumstances. One feels sorry for Ewan McGregor, trying desperately to hold everything together, and considering the task is impossible, he doesn't do a bad job in portraying a hapless wideboy, way out of his depth. Colin Farrell, who is required to show higher levels of anguish and mental unravelling, has a more difficult time and often his turmoil as the character Terry and his turmoil as an under-directed actor become indistinguishable. Tom Wilkinson is as efficient as ever, but his character is a complete cipher and so there is hardly any room for him to manoeuvre. Hayley Attwell fairs better, as her Angela is removed from the central fray and left to stand as an example of a feckless middle-class actress, whom she captures very well. Zsigmond's photography too is pleasing, putting across London, Brighton and some more leafy locations in warm, saturated tones, though generally the camera direction is unambitious.
The DVDPresented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer is absolutely fine and without issues. The colour is nicely balanced and detail is sharp throughout. The stereo audio track too is crisp and well balanced, with the Glass score cutting through at just the right intensity. In keeping with Woody Allen's predilections, the disc is a barebones release, with a simple menu offering a choice between the film and scene selection. There are no extras.
ConclusionAfter watching Cassandra's Dream one is inevitably left thinking: what is Woody Allen doing? His well-documented quick, lite and cheap method of filmmaking has come severely unstuck here, and he has ignored the rule that, whatever your approach in capturing material, you have to get it right. In the same way as the script registers as a skimped first draft, written on barbiturates, the film itself includes substandard, sometimes fluffed action and dialogue that anybody can see needs re-taking. It is one thing to criticise a film on partially subjective aesthetic grounds and quite another to point out basic errors of competence, of which in Cassandra's Dream there are so many one is spoilt for choice.
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