Woody Allen’s latest has the director working in England’s green and pleasant land for the first time. The combination of familiar themes from his past works together with a fresh setting and vibrant young actors makes for an interesting film. Review by Roger Keen.
You can recognise a Woody Allen film right from the start – by those familiar and anachronistic white-on-black opening credits. But once you get past the credits, it can be hard to know what to expect from this director, who likes to dabble in both comedy and tragedy with equal relish. Early on in Match Point we see Chris Wilton (Johnathan Rhys Meyers) reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and this is a big clue that we’re entering the territory of existential angst and claustrophobic tension, with not too many laughs.
Tennis pro Chris becomes involved with the rich and powerful Hewett family when he takes a coaching job at a high-class club. Chris’s charm and helpful ways, and a love of opera, cement his friendship with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) and his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and give Allen the opportunity to fortify his soundtrack with stirring operatic arias. Chloe is clearly falling for Chris, who seems happy to play along; but during a weekend at the Hewett’s country retreat, Chris has an explosive encounter with ravishing blonde actress Nola (Scarlett Johansson). The magnetism is immediate, and Chris doesn’t attempt to hide it, but Nola backs off, and she is shortly revealed as Tom’s fiancée.
The beautiful Nola has a neurotic flipside, where she becomes morose and cannot project her personality, constantly failing at auditions and turning to drink for relief. Tom’s controlling mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) is alive to Nola’s flaws and picks on her, hoping that Tom will drop her for someone more suitable. By contrast, Eleanor and her husband Alec (Brian Cox) adore Chris, thinking him eminently suitable for Chloe, with whom he becomes more deeply involved, accepting her as a consolation prize in place of Nola. But Chris’s obsession with Nola remains, even as he seals his fate with the Hewetts by marrying Chloe and taking a prestigious new job in Alec’s company. After Nola does finally enter his life, we feel the walls closing in on Chris – as surely as the walls of the Temple of Doom close in on Indiana Jones.
Woody Allen’s use of Scarlett Johansson recalls Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and the theme of the trauma and complications of infidelity echoes Hannah and her Sisters and that other Dostoyevskyian piece Crimes and Misdemeanours. So Allen is on familiar ground here in his first British film, which consummates his long-time love of working with British actors. The casting is particularly spot-on, with all the principals seeming most plausible together, and the almost clinical examination of upper middle class life is strikingly accurate. Allen takes possession of London, and with his use of familiar locations and walking-talking shots, makes it feel like a version of his New York.
The character and story development is slowly and meticulously done, with Allen coaxing his performers to reach new heights. It is a tribute to Scarlett Johansson’s skill as an actress that she plays a hopeless actress very convincingly, and the changing chemical brew between her and a smouldering Rhys Meyers has a most authentic stamp. Match Point is a tour de force of acting and the direction of actors; plot-wise, however, it steams off in a direction which feels a trifle far-fetched and contrived, given what has gone before, but which keeps up the suspense right to the end, through a series of ingenious twists and turns, and a memorable slow-motion shot. In mixing drama and thriller modes, it feels like Allen is trying to have his cake and eat it, but the film succeeds on the level of gripping entertainment, and its message – a meditation on the fickle nature of luck in sport and life – is thought-provoking, if a little morally deficient to completely ring true.
Match Point has been dubbed ‘a return to form’ for Woody Allen, and it is certainly more highly tuned than much of his recent output. As a filmmaker he just wants to work, and in taking on board new acting talent and a new stomping ground, he is, at the age of seventy, a testament to the power of reinvention. But even he can’t escape that older artist’s handicap of repetition and self-derivation, and though this latest film is not quite Dostoyevsky, it still remains very worthwhile.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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