Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cassandra's Dream

Critics have long been accusing Woody Allen of repeating himself, of retracing the same ground over and over again in his films — fatalistic, death-obsessed, pessimistic to a fault. With Cassandra's Dream, his latest film, these accusations have never been more true. This film is more than familiar ground for Allen, a virtual retread of Match Point, the dark, coolly moralistic drama that put him back on many people's radars after a decade of notoriously uneven and unsuccessful films. Even then, Match Point wasn't wholly new territory, recycling much of the plot and underlying themes from Crimes and Misdemeanors, with a few new wrinkles thrown in. Cassandra's Dream returns to the formula once again, and by now it's starting to get stale and predictable, though Allen's craft is as assured as ever, and taken on its own merits the film is every bit as exacting and precisely calibrated as its predecessors.

The film centers around two brothers, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell), who are in dire financial straits but dream of a much better life, inspired by the example of their rich Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson). As with Match Point, this is a film about class envy and the desire for mobility and wealth, with working class men aiming to rise above their class strata. In this respect, at least, the new film is much superior to its predecessor, in that it marks perhaps the first time in his career when the notoriously upper-class Allen has managed to present a convincing portrait of working class struggle. At this point, I'm sure any real Londoners out there can step in and inform me that Allen's depiction of working class British life is far from realistic, and I'm sure they'd be right — Woody has never been about realism, even in his own country, and I doubt he's managed to capture British life any more authentically. Nevertheless, what's real (and universal) are the emotions and the desperation of the two brothers in their desire to make new lives for themselves, to escape the cycle of poverty where everything they want seems just out of reach. In Match Point, the blank-faced Jonathan Rhys Meyers never convincingly portrayed this yearning in his character, and despite the great lengths he ultimately goes to move up in social status, his character never seemed desperate enough or hungry enough for the success he was going after. Farrell and McGregor are definitely hungry, and in this sense Allen's helped tremendously by casting these two earthy, emotive actors as opposed to the chilly Meyers.

The script takes great pains to take advantage of this empathy for the two leads, establishing their brotherly camaraderie right in the first shot, which shows them running down to a boat by the docks together, side by side, looking like two boys engaged in innocent play rather than the grown men they are. The first half of the film traces, virtually without real incident, the brothers' average lives: their gambling and attempts to improve their lots, McGregor's burgeoning relationship with an actress (Hayley Atwell), and their trips on the boat they went into debt to buy. This all changes with the arrival of their rich Uncle Howard, who in an extraordinary scene lets the cracks in his seemingly idyllic existence show through, and he asks his nephews to commit the unthinkable act of murder in order to prevent his carefully ordered life from falling apart. After this explosive and brilliantly handled climax, the rest of the film delves into somewhat predictable territory for Allen, exploring the questions of morality, the existence of God, and the extent to which we impose upon ourselves the punishments for our crimes. After the deed is done, McGregor remains stoic and happy to accept the rewards, while Farrell quickly falls apart. Allen drops references to Bonnie & Clyde and the Greek tragedies, indicating his touchstones this time around, but ultimately there isn't much difference from his approach to this kind of material in Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, when Russian tragic literature was his central reference point.

This film does differ crucially from its predecessors in the extent to which it is a wholly male-centric film, with little place for the women, an uncharacteristic decision from a director who has always focused much of his creative energy around his female characters. Atwell's character has little enough to do here, as does Sally Hawkins as Farrell's longtime girlfriend. In one sense, this is a relief, as her character had potential to become another version of Scarlett Johansson's simplistic femme fatale from Match Point, where Allen's vision of the woman leading to the man's downfall bordered on misogyny. Here, the story is solely about brotherhood and especially the strength of familial bonds, which Allen depicts with compassion, sympathy, and complexity, but also with a healthy distrust and even a darkly comic bite. The scene where the uncle first outlines his request for a favor to his nephews is a case in point, played with a deadpan irony and subtle humor that often comes out, perversely, in the film's darkest moments. When the brothers initially refuse to kill for him, the uncle throws a wild temper tantrum, storming off and yelling, "I guess your idea of family is very different than mine." As for Allen, his view of family seems to be somewhere between the two poles, infused with equal parts darkness and love.

This dark drama plays out with a cool, distant tone that should be very familiar from the never-sentimental Allen. These characters have their moments of warmth and sympathy along the way, but their inevitable downfalls creep ever closer without a trace of editorializing or commentary. This is undoubtedly a replay of Match Point and other Allen dramas, but it's also a step forward from its predecessors in several key ways, and I suspect that if this hadn't been just the latest in a long line of such films, I would have liked it much more than I did. As it is, it seems obvious that Allen has taken this particular strain of his filmmaking as far as it can go, that he has milked these themes and these types of situations for all he can get out of them, and that he will have to start exploring fresh territory if his films are to remain interesting.

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