Film review of Match Point

More Woody Allen: this film review of “Match Point” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 10 March 2006.)

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Brian Cox, Matthew Goode, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Penelope Wilton

Try as I might, I was unable to join the growing chorus (mostly film critics) which lauded Woody Allen’s film “Match Point” when it was released in 2006 here in Australia.  While it was certainly Allen’s most accomplished film since “Deconstructing Harry” (released in 1997), I found “Match Point” uncomfortable and less than emotionally satisfying.

“Match Point” is indeed a good film, with a sharply observed screenplay and four young actors who all do a great job.  Allen has travelled from his native New York City on a few occasions in the past, but here sets the whole film in England.  The story centres around young tennis pro Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who meets and befriends the wealthy Hewett family – young Tom (Matthew Goode) and his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer).  As the distinctly working class Chris gets closer to (and eventually marries) Chloe, her powerful financier father Alec (Brian Cox) organises for him to join the “firm” and have a rapid rise in business fortunes.  But Chris cannot stay away from struggling American actress Nola (Scarlett Johansson), while she is Tom’s girlfriend and later after Tom has decided to move on to greener pastures.

“Match Point” (the title reference to tennis) also revisits some of Allen’s key themes in the past:  the capriciousness of fate, how can evil triumph and those who do bad things get away with it, and how much of our lives are dependent on luck.  “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1990) also covered much of this ground, although in a much fuller way – connecting the issue of evil directly with the Holocaust (on which Allen has pondered at great length for much of his film and writing career).  No such universal themes here:  just a bunch of reasonably immature upper-class (and wanna-be upper-class) young people.

Young Nola is the unlucky femme fatale of the group, and Johansson plays her with all of the sultry, sexy and pouty appeal we expect.  Allen directs with a sure hand, and the ability of this now seventy-something director to bring to life a story about people in their young twenties is impressive.  The scenes are carefully constructed, and the language detailed and precise – every word means something in a Woody Allen film.  The minor characters – from maids to secretaries to policemen to restaurant workers – are all carefully drawn.

Aside from the operatic score (occasionally with a purposefully scratchy vinyl record soundtrack), you would need to look carefully to realise that this is a film by one of the most accomplished American-Jewish directors of the past four decades.  At the risk of sounding petulant, this is probably where “Match Point” falls down:  Woody Allen’s best films have all resonated with – and drawn heavily from – contemporary Jewish anxiety and neurosis:  one of his greatest skills has been showing how the Jewish condition informs us on the state of moral uncertainty in our world.  Sure, those films were mostly set in the professional and artistic upper-middle classes (usually living on New York City’s Upper East or Upper West Sides).  In “Match Point”, he has done a thoroughly professional job of moving venues to the British upper classes, but in doing so has lost some deeper and echoing significance.

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