(director/writer: Woody Allen; cinematographer: Remi Adefarasin; editor: Alisa Lepselter; cast: Scarlett Johansson (Nola Rice), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Chris Wilton), Emily Mortimer (Chloe Hewett Wilton), Matthew Goode (Tom Hewett), Brian Cox (Alec Hewett), Penelope Wilton (Eleanor Hewett), Margaret Tyzack (Mrs. Eastby, Nola’s neighbor), Detective Banner (James Nesbitt); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Letty Aronson/Gareth Wiley/Lucy Darwin; BBC Films; 2005-UK)
“This solid, well-observed and cerebral presentation signifies that Woody is back in full stride after some recent so-so works.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The 70-year-old Woody Allen (“Annie Hall”/”Interiors”) in his 36th film shleps to London to film a morality play that’s a serious drama without his usual one-liners, but instead is spiked with a more subtle darker humor. It covers familiar territory for the romantic drama, but it reaches to be like Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” This solid, well-observed and cerebral presentation signifies that Woody is back in full stride after some recent so-so works. Though laden with thematic references to Strindberg’s plays, Verdi’s opera, modern art and tennis, it overall comes closest in narrative to his “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
It opens with the following quote “The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and, for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win … or maybe it doesn’t and you lose.”
The tale centers around the good-mannered and smooth Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a poor Irish lad who quit the pro circuit after playing with the best when he realizes he can never be as good as them and takes a job as a tennis instructor at an exclusive London club. He befriends his rich boy client Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), both sharing a love of opera, and through him meets his sweet single sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Tom’s engaged to the sexy aspiring actress Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), an American from a dysfunctional poor family, that Tom’s mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) despises because she’s spoiled, too moody and not suited for her son. Chris is immediately attracted to Nola, and catches her at the right time when she’s emotionally hurt by Eleanor’s barbs and a bit tipsy. They have a one time romp in the hay, but she wards off any further advances hoping to hook the handsome Tom as her meal ticket.
Warning: spoiler in the next paragraph.
Chloe is madly in love with Chris and gets her supportive, sophisticated, art patron industrialist father Alec (Brian Cox) to get him a job in the business. Pops is impressed with the low-key cultured lad and glad he makes his daughter so happy, and agrees to their marriage plans. The social climbing Chris leads a comfortable life as her parents adore their son-in-law and present him with many luxuries and advance his career, while Chloe’s only grief is that she can’t get pregnant. Meantime Tom jilts Nola for another and soon marries her; she’s someone mom likes. The depressed Nola returns to America and is not seen until about a year later when Chris and Chloe run into her at the Tate Modern among giant canvases of abstract paintings. Chris will secretly get her number and begin a hot affair, while Nola works in a boutique and continues going on unsuccessful acting auditions. When Nola gets pregnant, she refuses to get her third abortion (one from a first marriage and the other from Tom) and Chris agrees to marry her. But when the time comes to tell his wife, he can’t. Under pressure from the nagging Nola, Chris realizes that to do “the right thing” would mean giving up his comfortable lifestyle something which he’s not ready to do. His solution is to borrow one of his father-in-law’s hunting rifles and through a well-planned murder eliminate his problem. Though everything seemed well planned, it was luck that saved the day for him. The story resolves itself more to make a philosophical point than to really explain what drives the characters to act the way they do. As it’s still not clear to me how Chris could so suddenly become a cold-blooded murderer, though it’s possible. But there were no clues dropped during the narrative to indicate this. This failure to get at a deeper level of Chris’s character is the film’s biggest flaw. But, nonetheless, the acting was superb, the atmosphere set was very movie-like English and the narrative was coherent and intelligent, something that hasn’t been the case in many recent Woody films.
REVIEWED ON 11/27/2005 GRADE: A-