London Calling: For Woody Allen, neurosis knows no borders
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Remi Adefarasin
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode
Studio info: DreamWorks SKG, 124 mins
Imagine Dylan penning raps for Ludacris. Or Robert Altman crafting an intimate, character study. Or Philip Roth writing tawdry romance novels. To purists, the news of Woody Allen shooting a film outside his native, beloved Manhattan is equally hard to digest. But changing locales proves inspirational for Allen in Match Point, his most accomplished film in a decade. The new picture, filmed in London, features another sharp departure—Allen’s decision to part ways, at least temporarily, with longtime collaborators like editor Alisa Lepselter and production designer Santo Loquasto. Surrounding himself with a new set of craftsmen, including production designer Jim Clay and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, Allen has made a film that doesn’t look or sound like anything he’s done before.
Despite deviating from the formula of his New York comedies—with their sophisticated characters, Jewish angst and Manhattan locales—Allen is still on terra firma. Critical consensus on his recent Gotham films, with their increasingly reliable ingredients, is that they’d become redundant and tiresome, even when cast with younger actors like Jason Biggs and Kenneth Branagh, who slavishly imitated Allen’s neurotic style.
A morality tale of ambition, seduction and passion, the story dwells on the role that chance—or fate, if you prefer—plays in shaping events and personalities. Filled with British characters save for one American (Scarlett Johansson), Match Point could be described as a cross between Dostoevesky’s Crime and Punishment, Altman’s class-conscious period mystery Gosford Park and Allen’s own Crimes and Misdemeanors.
Though he’s traded East Side brownstones for Knightsbridge townhomes, it’s still possible to detect several of Allen’s dependable signatures—characters’ neuroses (by this point a given), highbrow banter and references to Ingmar Bergman. Allen is an auteur who often defines his artistic vision in reference to other filmmakers. In the past, it was hard for savvy viewers to take his “borrowing” in good faith, because he frequently alternated between movies inspired by Fellini (Stardust Memories is Allen’s 8 1/2) and Bergman (Interiors).
Match Point’s story is contemporary but feels more like prewar England in its depiction of a buttoned-up ruling class. British critics may charge that Match Point is the work of an outsider whose knowledge of their country’s mores and customs derives from movies and novels.
But Allen takes time to establish his characters and their physical and social worlds, tangled interactions and inner thoughts and decisions. Irishman Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a former tennis pro who leaves the circuit after recognizing his limitations, gets a job teaching tennis to wealthy clients at a posh London club, where he meets and befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Tom invites Chris to join him in the family box where he meets Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), who’s immediately smitten with the handsome coach. Chris reciprocates, more out of friendliness than passion, but things change when he encounters Tom’s fiancée, the moody, sexy Nola Rice (Johansson).
Using subversive humor to heighten the central theme, Allen suggests that opportunities in life are a function of timing and context. When Chris catches Nola in the right mood and moment, she succumbs and an affair ensues. Tom eventually jilts Nola, but by then, Chris has married Chloe and has secured a lucrative job at her father’s firm.
Chris and Nola recognize in each other the working-class outsider in a world of wealth. However, if Chris is malleable enough to play along, Nola, a struggling actress, isn’t. Even as he scales the corporate ladder, Chris pursues his attraction to Nola. Pressed by her and eager to do “the right thing,” Chris’ moral impulses lead him to borrow his father-in-law’s shotgun before the whole thing unravels.
The film’s bittersweet tone and serious issues—how people rationalize criminal acts, the elusiveness of justice as an arbitrary system—echo Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen’s masterful inquisition into the nature of evil. Match Point deals with similar issues in a different locale, populated by younger characters. In both films, instead of taking a casually brutal approach, Allen dwells on the consequences of sin. Opera provides a fittingly portentous soundtrack, departing from Allen’s typical Gershwin and jazz. As a young man driven by ambition and seduced by the comforts of wealth, Rhys-Meyers is riveting. Johansson is equally good in a part that calls for sexual allure and emotional vulnerability in equal measure.
Match Point’s main problem is that the film’s secondary characters lack depth. Allen is good at detailing Chris and Nola’s drive and determination to succeed, using legitimate and illegitimate means. However, the Hewett’s parents are too one-dimensional in a movie reaching for high philosophical notes. Occasionally, the plot, like the characters, suffers from sketchiness, particularly as we get deeper into business dealings and a police investigation.
That said, the change of scenery proves invigorating for Allen in his first U.K. production. Leaving behind his New York fixation has freed him to focus on his pet issues in a fresh way. The viewer is left with the title’s resonant tennis metaphor. The film opens with a shot of a tennis ball, mid-volley, poised above the net. The exact place where it will land is a matter of luck. A variation of this image appears at the end, in an exquisite twist not easily forgotten.