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Friday
Jun242011

Match Point

It’s a shocker, this latest film from Woody Allen.   Even though we know going in that it has something to do with murder, and though said murder is telegraphed, still the picture startles.   It elicits gasps and groans from the audience without a drop of blood being shown.    

The film traces the trajectory of Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a young tennis instructor at a club catering to London’s wealthy elite, who’s fresh off the pro circuit where he wasn’t quite able to hack it.   He’s from a poor Irish background, a literate chap whose love for high culture may be in part to distance him from that background.   Chris loves opera for the way it speaks to his conception of life as essentially tragic, and he offhandedly expresses his interest to Tom, a client who happens to be the son of a wealthy businessman.   Tom invites Chris to attend the opera with Tom’s family and soon enough Chris is engaged to Tom’s sister (a winsome Emily Mortimer) and their dad has ensconced Chris in the high towers of big business.  

Thus, Woody quickly sets in motion the film’s theme: that where one goes in life may have something to do with the interplay of will, talent, class and personal choices, but in the end it’s mostly down to pure luck.   For example, Chris’ casual mentioning of his opera-love to Tom ends up changing the direction of his entire life.   He finds himself enjoying perquisites of the sons and daughters of the wealthy –  i.e., a “good life” that is a function more of luck than of personal initiative.   For his new crowd this life was a lucky accident of birth; for him it was the luck of falling in with them.  

The sole representative of us Yanks on this junket across the pond for Woody is Scarlett Johansson as Nola, Tom’s fiancée, an aspiring but not particularly talented actress.   Her introductory scene gives us a young woman slyly aware of her allure, and we peg her immediately as a femme fatale.   Chris and Nola are both outsiders in this world of the British upper class, he by virtue of his class, she by her Americanism, and while we know that a torrid affair is in the offing, what surprises is that Nola never encourages his lust.   Johansson’s intelligence as an actress shines as she undercuts our first impression of Nola at every turn.  

The film takes its time to progressively whittle away Chris’ options.   This is necessary since the foundations laid for his psychology, such as showing him early on reading “Crime and Punishment” and a bio of Dostoyevsky, seem a bit pat and facile.   Aside from brief voiceovers at beginning and end we stay outside of Chris’ head, relying on the expressive acting of Rhys-Meyers to evoke his interior life.   For all the setup, what happens still shocks because we never quite believe it will; Woody’s contrapuntal use of opera as the narrative takes the turn from which there’s no going back is bravura filmmaking.        

If “Match Point” is not quite as rich as 1989’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Woody’s previous film about crime and punishment in a universe in which what people get has very little to do with what they deserve (and a film I still point to as an example of where film approaches the richness of a great novel), it is nonetheless engrossing, riveting, highly recommended viewing.  

- Jan 16, 2006  

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