Woody Allen’s freshest and most potent film in years manages to be much more than an erotic thriller.
By Betsy Sherman
Woody Allen’s cinema of the past 10 years has been one of quaint fetishes. True, his passion for early jazz resulted in the hilarious “Sweet and Lowdown,” but aside from that movie and the invigorating acid bath that was “Deconstructing Harry,” Allen’s films have been only intermittently entertaining. His penchant for nostalgia, and for dialogue that sounds tinny in the mouths of young actors, seemed to have turned his career into a dried flower placed between the pages of a book in about 1986.
It isn’t surprising that Allen shot a film on location in London; the stunner is that he’s brought back a movie as fresh and potent as “Match Point.” It’s a straight-ahead drama, sans comedic subplot such as the Woody/Mia Farrow /Alan Alda triangle that shared space with the profoundly dramatic Martin Landau/Anjelica Huston plot in the 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Allen has drawn superb performances from a cast that doesn’t include any of his old cronies, in a story that’s culled from classic themes but feels convincingly contemporary. “Match Point” could be typed as an erotic thriller, but it’s much more.
“Match Point” follows the trajectory of Chris Wilton, a former professional tennis player from a humble Irish background whose association with an upper-class British family introduces him to a new world of luxuries and stimuli. Jonathan Rhys Meyers gives a subtle, oh-so-powerful performance as Chris. And Scarlett Johansson — who has already finished work on another Allen movie — boosts her career to a new level as an American who basks in the favor of a carefree young heir.
Allen’s old-timey music of choice for “Match Point” isn’t jazz but opera — as sung on the soundtrack by Enrico Caruso in endearingly crackly recordings. Chris teaches at a posh tennis club, and is befriended by Tom Hewett (played by the Rupert Everett-ish Matthew Goode). Chris mentions opera, and Tom promptly invites him to join his family in their box (“My father gives loads to Covent Garden”). There, Chris meets father Alec (Brian Cox), mother Eleanor (Penelope Wilton), and sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer), a shrinking violet who promptly takes a liking to him.
At first glance, Chris is an earnest lad with a penchant for self-improvement of which autodidact Allen must surely approve. Along with his taste for opera, he’s learning about literature (a Dostoyevsky novel in one hand, a commentary book in the other), theater (Strindberg), foreign films and fine art. Only a cynic would point out that this culturing-up also serves as the means to an end.
Chris’ physical attributes may count for more in the estimation of the Hewetts than his good taste. Allen has long evinced admiration for athletes, and he and Rhys Meyers present Chris as a man of cool, understated virility who knows how to control his body and his body language. He enters into a relationship with Chloe, and even before he describes her as “very sweet,” we can tell that that’s the extent of his enthusiasm for her. Soon, Chris has an encounter that shows us what he looks like when he feels desire.
The introduction of Johansson’s Nola, presiding over a ping-pong table during a party at the Hewetts’ country home, recalls the etched-in-cinema-history meeting of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor over a pool table during a party in “A Place in the Sun.” Allen’s film will recall that movie’s source, Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy,” at more than one point, although it’s by no means a remake. Nola’s deliciously femme fatale opening line, “Who’s my next victim?” invites the tennis pro to trounce her, then give hands-on instruction. Nola is an aspiring actress — and Tom’s fiancée. Chris and Nola may have warm blood — and, as embodied by Rhys Meyers and Johansson, full, sensual lips — but the thin-lipped Hewetts possess a lifestyle that the attractive proles only know from magazines.
On a double date at a restaurant, Nola expresses her desire for an Aston-Martin as if its possession were a ‘fait accompli.’ Chris remains poker-faced. Chloe teases him for ordering roast chicken rather than caviar blintzes (the poor girl doesn’t realize she’ll become the equivalent to roast chicken in his life). But his low-key approach pays off — as Chloe’s husband, he wins a fast-track job at “Papa’s” firm (with a company car and driver) and a shiny penthouse overlooking the Thames.
Spurred by the catalyst of his sexual affair with Nola, Chris realizes that his bonds with the Hewetts’ world are but jewel-encrusted shackles. “Match Point” hardly breaks new ground in this regard, and doesn’t claim to: Allen’s use of opera arias as the plot hurtles towards violence ties Chris’ predicament to archetypal anti-heroes. Allen uses modern artworks in Chloe’s gallery and in the couple’s apartment — a painting of a man and his disconnected shadow, and a Chuck Close semi-obscured portrait — as stylized illustrations of Chris’ duplicity.
A crucial element of “Match Point” is its abundance of light, which is not only a function of cinematography but also of production design. One might have expected Allen to set his increasingly noir story in mahogany-colored interiors representing England’s moribund ruling class. Instead, he presents a contemporary London where those with the lucre live and work behind picture windows that afford a sparkling river view. Even the Hewetts’ stately manor is invitingly bright inside. Similarly, Alec, as played by Brian Cox, is as open as a sunlit meadow, apparently motivated solely by good intentions.
The dark recesses lie within. Rhys Meyers has a marvelous sense of containment as Chris. He gives Chris the ability to be as nondescript as a Ken doll, so that people believe they can mold him into whatever they want. Even Nola, who is a bundle of insecurities beneath her bravado, sees only what she wants to see.
Both Chris and Nola enter into a series of bargains, not realizing what they’ll lose until it’s too late to make a simple exit. Allen frames the story with references to luck, but this is a smokescreen. “Match Point” is kin to “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in which Allen gave the key line of dialogue to the philosopher, Professor Levy: “We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.”