London Calling, With Luck, Lust and Ambition

New York Times, December 28, 2005

Because Woody Allen’s early films are about as funny as any ever made, it is often assumed that his temperament is essentially comic, which leads to all manner of disappointment and misunderstanding. Now and then, Mr. Allen tries to clear up the confusion, insisting, sometimes elegantly and sometimes a little too baldly, that his view of the world is essentially nihilistic. He has announced, in movie after movie, an absolute lack of faith in any ordering moral principle in the universe — and still, people think he’s joking.

In ”Match Point,” his most satisfying film in more than a decade, the director once again brings the bad news, delivering it with a light, sure touch. This is a Champagne cocktail laced with strychnine. You would have to go back to the heady, amoral heyday of Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder to find cynicism so deftly turned into superior entertainment. At the very beginning, Mr. Allen’s hero, a young tennis player recently retired from the professional tour, explains that the role of luck in human affairs is often underestimated. Later, the harsh implications of this idea will be evident, but at first it seems as whimsical as what Fred Astaire said in ”The Gay Divorcee”: that ”chance is the fool’s name for fate.”

Mr. Allen’s accomplishment here is to fool his audience, or at least to misdirect us, with a tale whose gilded surface disguises the darkness beneath. His guile — another name for it is art — keeps the story moving with the fleet momentum of a well-made play. Comparisons to ”Crimes and Misdemeanors” are inevitable, since the themes and some elements of plot are similar, but the philosophical baggage in ”Match Point” is more tightly and discreetly packed. There are few occasions for speech-making, and none of the desperate, self-conscious one-liners that have become, in Mr. Allen’s recent movies, more tics than shtick. Nor is there an obvious surrogate for the director among the youthful, mostly British and altogether splendid cast. If you walked in after the opening titles, it might take you a while to guess who made this picture.

After a while you would, of course. The usual literary signposts are in place: surely no other screenwriter could write a line like ”darling, have you seen my copy of Strindberg?” or send his protagonist to bed with a paperback Dostoyevsky. But while a whiff of Russian fatalism lingers in the air — and more than a whiff of Strindbergian misogyny — these don’t seem to be the most salient influences. The film’s setting is modified Henry James (wealthy London, with a few social and cultural outsiders buzzing around the hives of privilege); the conceit owes something to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books; and the narrative engine is pure Theodore Dreiser — hunger, lust, ambition, greed.

Not that the tennis player, Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), seems at first to be consumed by such appetites. An Irishman of modest background, he takes a job at an exclusive London club, helping its rich members polish their ground strokes. He seems both easygoing and slightly ill at ease, ingratiating and diffident. Before long, he befriends Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), the amiable, unserious heir to a business fortune, who invites Chris to the family box at the opera. From there, it is a short trip to an affair with Tom’s sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), a job in the family firm and the intermittently awkward but materially rewarding position of son-in-law to parents played by Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton.

When ”Match Point” was shown in Cannes last spring, some British critics objected that its depiction of London was inaccurate, a demurral that New Yorkers, accustomed to visiting Mr. Allen’s fantasy Manhattan, could only greet with weary shrugs and sighs. Uprooting a script originally set in the Hamptons and repotting it in British soil has refreshed and sharpened the story, which depends not on insight into a particular social situation, but rather on a general theory of human behavior. London is Manhattan seen through a glass, brightly: Tate Modern stands in for the Museum of Modern Art; Covent Garden takes the place of Lincoln Center. As for the breathtaking South Bank loft into which Chris and Chloe move, it will satisfy the lust for high-end real estate that has kept the diehards in their seats during Mr. Allen’s long creative malaise.

In this case, though, what happens in the well-appointed rooms and fashionable restaurants is more interesting than the architecture or the décor. Mr. Rhys-Meyers has an unusual ability to keep the audience guessing, to draw us into sympathetic concord even as we’re trying to figure him out. Is he a cipher or a sociopath? A careful social climber or a reckless rake? The first clue that he may be something other than a mild, well-mannered sidekick comes when Chris meets Tom’s fiancé, an American actress named Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), in a scene that raises the movie’s temperature from a polite simmer to a full sexual boil. (The scene also quietly acknowledges a debt to ”A Place in the Sun,” George Stevens’s adaptation of Dreiser’s ”American Tragedy.” The parallels don’t stop there. Mr. Rhys-Meyers’s hollow-cheeked watchfulness recalls Montgomery Clift. Which makes Ms. Johansson either the next Elizabeth Taylor or the new Shelley Winters. Hmm).

What passes between Chris and Nola is not only desire, but also recognition, which makes their connection especially volatile. As their affair advances, Ms. Johansson and Mr. Rhys-Meyers manage some of the best acting seen in a Woody Allen movie in a long time, escaping the archness and emotional disconnection that his writing often imposes. It is possible to identify with both of them — and to feel an empathetic twinge as they are ensnared in the consequences of their own heedlessness — without entirely liking either one.

But it is the film’s brisk, chilly precision that makes it so bracingly pleasurable. The gloom of random, meaningless existence has rarely been so much fun, and Mr. Allen’s bite has never been so sharp, or so deep. A movie this good is no laughing matter.

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