Woody Allen's latest is his most mature work in decades. At 70, the director finally has committed himself behind the camera and behind the scenes, allowing the focus to rest on the story, rather than its teller.
This is a relief for those of us who have loved Allen but have grown increasingly embarrassed and uncomfortable as he has continued to cast himself as the irresistible lover of buxom young starlets. His greatness, in the long run, won't be measured by his acting, but by his ability to adopt so many screen genres and make them his own.
Match Point is an old-fashioned yarn, elegant in its restraint, golden visually with a dark undertone, and doled out at a carefully measured pace. It feels like one of those films Allen himself might have watched in a Saturday afternoon double-feature in the late 1940s or early '50s, with Bette Davis in the role of the struggling young actress.
The story is as old as fiction itself. A young man of poor upbringing tries to pull himself up in the social strata by mingling with the very rich. When he finds himself in a moral bind, standing to lose all that he's gained, he must make a decision that will alter his life forever. On screen, we saw the tale most recently in The Talented Mr. Ripley, and there are several moments in Match Point when Patricia Highsmith's story comes to mind.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is Chris, a young Irishman settled in London following a short career as a tennis pro. Giving lessons at a posh athletic club, he befriends Tom (Matthew Goode), a happy-go-lucky aristocrat with box seats at the opera and a generous nature. In no time, Chris is spending weekends at Tom's family estate, courting his eager sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and warming up to the lord and lady of the manor, Eleanor and Alec (Penelope Wilton and Brian Cox).
Although the question of Chris' true motives already has begun to rouse our curiosity, we get the first hint of his bald ambition when he sidles up to a gorgeous blonde American, played by the luscious Scarlett Johansson, and flirts outrageously with her, only to learn that she is Nola, Tom's fiance. That doesn't stop him from pursuing her secretively, and their affair marks the beginning of his and her ultimate demise. (This is a bit of casting magic: The screen rarely has seen a more alluring match of lips than those of Johansson and Rhys-Meyers.)
Allen's script and the crisp performances of his actors allow us to continue hoping for the best, though we know that in his universe, the guiding hand leads with lust and ambition. He craftily manipulates his audience into sympathizing with a scoundrel, to the point that we find ourselves hoping he can cover his tracks before he's found out, jumping in our seats when we think he's about to get caught. The result is unsettling, until we remember this is just a movie and the sunlight awaits just beyond the theater door. It's an altogether old-fashioned movie-going experience.
As he has done with New York so many times, Allen turns London into a magical place, accompanying sweeps of the camera across grand architectural landscapes with a scratchy phonograph soundtrack of old Enrico Caruso recordings. These shots remind us who's directing, and we feel we're in the hands of a master who's remembered his calling.
Match Point is currently showing at Kimball's Twin Peak. See page 29 for a list of movie times.