If there’s one common thread in all the buzz about Woody Allen’s latest film, Match Point, it’s that it feels nothing like a Woody Allen film. The surface reasons for this perception are obvious, seeing as how Match Point is set in England, is not a comedy and doesn’t feature Allen as his familiar neurotic self. Looking deeper, Match Point has at least a few traits that have become commonplace in Allen’s 40-year career as a filmmaker.
The dialogue in it is sharp and bright, something that has become expected of Allen, and this time around, the story is excellent, even if it does take too long to unfold.
Match Point feels like a British art film, with its lush colors and interesting locations, and represents Allen’s best visuals since he last worked with cinematographer Gordon Willis 20 years ago. Its look and feel are highly cinematic, and the tone is heavy and serious, a harsh departure from Allen’s newer work like Melinda and Melinda and Anything Else.
Allen may have never attempted something this dramatic before, but for a guy who lists Fellini and Bergman among his biggest influences, it’s not a surprise. Match Point deals with wealth and society, two common themes in Allen’s comedies, although this time it’s London’s class structure being studied, not New York’s. When the ideal of marriage comes under scrutiny in the film, it’s hard not to think of Allen himself, twice divorced and now controversially married to his former girlfriend’s adopted daughter.
Allen is renowned for staying in the background on set and not getting too involved with the actors. Match Point’s star, Scarlett Johansson, says endearingly that he was “practically doing it with his eyes closed.” He’s also gotten amazing performances over the years. Fourteen actors, ranging from Diane Keaton to Jennifer Tilly, have been nominated for Oscars in his films, and Johansson seems like she could be the 15th for Match Point.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of Woody’s,” she says. “I could work with him forever and never get bored. It just kind of gives me the opportunity to see him every day, which is a joy. I think that it was great. It feels like a dream come true.”
She plays Nola in the film, an American dating the son of a wealthy English family. When Nola’s boyfriend brings home his friend Chris (Bend It Like Beckham’s Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), an affair begins between him and Nola. But as things get complicated, Chris ends up marrying his friend’s sister, played by Emily Mortimer, and his new position within the wealthy family makes leaving her impossible, even though he wants the newly single Nola more.
The relationships sound like a soap opera, but the themes are deeply rooted in the characters and their actions. The main theme of the film is luck, and Allen’s story delves into how it impacts the lives of Chris and Nola. Along the way, the film shifts radically in tone, details of which the viewer should avoid beforehand in order to fully appreciate the unusual surprise in emotion it evokes.
Allen crafts the plot in this one as intricately as he usually crafts his characters. While many of his films feature a sort of basic plot, usually something dealing with the shifting of relationships, his characters are almost always deeply drawn. This time, the story is arguably deeper than the characters, but very solid, traditional acting from the whole cast evens that out.
Mortimer, one of the younger veterans of the indie world, said acting in the film was almost effortless. “He doesn’t feel the need to explain things,” she says of Allen. “It’s very brisk and laconic somehow, the way that the screenplay is written, and there was something so impressive about reading that, because we read an awful lot of scripts in our job and so many of them are just overwritten and desperately trying to explain themselves and this was just so spare and it was very arresting to read it.”
“There was no real rehearsal,” she added. “Very often the first time that you say your lines is the first take.”
Johansson impressed Allen enough to be invited back for his next film, a comedy called Scoop that finished shooting in England in September. Johansson is no stranger to great directors, having worked with Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer) and the Coen brothers (The Man Who Wasn’t There) before turning 18. But for her, Allen’s upcoming film was a different kind of challenge.
“It’s real serious business doing comedy with Woody Allen,” she says of acting alongside him in Scoop. “I set up a lot of his lines in that film and the timing was hard, hard work when you’re working with a comic genius like that. Of course he nails it in one take. I, on the other hand, two days later, am still struggling.”
For big fans of Allen, Match Point has to be both exciting and worrisome at the same time. Worrisome because it’s not a New York comedy and could signal a shift away from the walk-and-talk Manhattan style that made Allen so loved. And exciting because Match Point is Allen’s best film in a while, a very mature and classical-type work, and one of the best movies of 2005.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.