More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
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Woody Allen can never resist giving all the good lines to one character, and this time it is to Colin Firth (as Stanley Crawford), whom others close to him describe as a rationalist and caustic : sounding on Firth’s lips, the egotism of some characters that Allen has written for himself (e.g. Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry (1997)), and their disparaging or grudging excuses or views of others, seem refreshingly new.
The plot is not a complex one, and it would not easily hold off a fan of who-dunnits, but it plays with the familiar Allen type of a man whose (intellectual) opinion of himself gets in the way of his real enjoyment, a theme that goes right back to Love and Death (1975). Here, the tone is light, though calling it whimsical (as some have done) is not perhaps catching the right tone – and better describes To Rome with Love (2012) - but it benefits from the quality of having been caught on film (and cinematographer Darius Khondji has been working with Allen as early as Anything Else (2003)*), as crucially with the effect of day- as of moonlight.
Allen regularly revolves certain themes that mean something to him, such as magic (from Stardust Memories (1980) and earlier (and Radio Days (1987)? ) to The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and Scoop (2006)) and a disbelief in clairvoyance (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010)) or anything beyond the rational, and those come together here, with magician Crawford’s distrust of the powers of Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), egged on by his friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney).
Crawford is a sort of Benedict to Baker, as Firth was famously as Mr Darcy to Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet, and Firth carries this off perfectly, so much so at times (and with the film maybe a shade too long) that he is a little in danger of putting the others in the dark, even to some extent the redoubtable Eileen Atkins as Aunt Vanessa, let alone Baker : when we hear him discussed by members of the family where he is staying is not only a momentary absence from the screen, but also reinforces his nihilistic attitude (described as depression).
Nonetheless, we sense that he convinces himself more than others that he knows his own mind, and, in this sense, is a true Allen leading man, clinging to rationalism in order not to be adrift in the world – as we hear him, off guard, confessing to Baker his boyhood awe at the night sky. Criticize Allen, if one likes, for where the story is heading, but one would not be watching a film with such a title if not for it, and he gets us there with an ego more or less intact, as well as many a smile and an occasional hearty laugh along the way…
* For which Carlo Di Palma, coming out of retirement, failed a medical, and so could not be insured by the studio.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)