Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is a young tennis coach disillusioned by the sport and the direction of his career. A chance meeting with a brash young socialite called Tom (Matthew Goode) takes Chris into the belly of a privileged family, as he strikes up a friendship with Tom, lands a high paid job at his father’s firm and becomes engaged to his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). But Chris’ social ascent is endangered by his irrepressible attraction to a woman called Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a struggling American actress and Tom’s fiancée.
After nearly a decade of lightweight comedies, Woody Allen’s 34th film sees the director finally return to weightier concerns, with a fascinating – if sometimes frustrating – meditation on morality, infidelity and chance. Allen’s last film, Melinda and Melinda, did of course touch on darker subject matter, with its awkward juxtaposition of a tragic story with a humorous one, but this is a gag-free drama that takes a genuinely surprising turn into thriller territory in its last act.
Although Match Point is set in London, the film wasn’t originally intended to be Allen’s first British-shot film, and it was simply the availability of the BBC’s money that led him to translate the story to the UK. Inevitably, Woody does take a tourist’s view of the city – the London Eye, the Gherkin, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Opera House and the Tate Modern all feature – but the argument could be made that many of the director’s New York-set films are equally in awe of their landmark features. Similarly, Allen’s dialogue – always somewhat theatrical – sounds a little odd coming from the mouths of wealthy Brits rather than wealthy New Yorkers, but for the most part a stellar cast do a good job of making Woody’s words seem like their own.
It is the relationship between Chris and Nola that forms the backbone of the story and eventually leads Chris into very deep trouble. Chris is as difficult to read and Nola’s is open – a working class Irishman who suddenly finds himself in an over-privileged upper-class world, he is tight-lipped and careful about he says, using a combination of looks and charm to win Chloe as a lover and Tom as a friend. Rhys Meyers puts in a strange performance – at first he seems restrained to the point of woodeness, but as the plot develops and Chris’s attraction to Nola becomes a full-on affair, the actor reveals a convincing desperation at the complicated situation in which he finds himself. Things come to a head when Nola reveals she is pregnant and plans to keep the child, threatening the comfortable lifestyle that Chris has constructed by marrying Chloe and accepting her family’s generosity.
Nola’s change from slinky seductress to scorned woman is less subtly handled by Allen – one minute she’s resisting Chris’s advances, the next she’s obsessively phoning him and shrieking at him in the street – but Scarlett Johansson is casually sexy and it’s easy to see why Woody cast her. The rest of the cast is good – from Matthew Goode as the arrogant but likeable Tom to Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton as Tom’s parents, who have become extremely complacent in their affluence. The only weak note is Emily Mortimer, admittedly playing a rather annoying character, but who never seems completely comfortable as Chris’s too-eager, too-nice wife-to-be. And British viewers may also find the sheer number of famous TV faces rather distracting – among the cameos are League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss and Steve Pemberton, Paul Kaye, James Nesbitt, Ewen Bremner, John Fortune, Alexander Armstrong and Colin Salmon.
As with several other of Allen’s more recent films, I couldn’t quite escape the notion that the director doesn’t entirely understand his young characters as he once did – these are twenty-somethings solely interested in opera, literature and the arts, although it is possible Allen is also mocking their upper class pretensions. And although there are some awkwardly staged scenes – especially towards the end when James Nesbitt’s cop becomes an important character – there is much to admire. This must rank as one of Woody’s most stylish films – there are fewer of long, static takes and plenty of gliding camerawork, beautifully shot by Remi Adefarasin. Some scenes rank amongst the finest in the director’s filmography, in particular Chris and Nola’s first real conversation, as Chris takes advantage of her low-self esteem after a failed audition and ruthlessly interrogates her in a pub, and the chilling moment where Chris is confronted by the victims of the life-changing decision he makes to solve his problems.
Allen has explored similar territory before – most notably in Crimes and Misdemeanours – and perhaps Match Point is not classic Woody. Nevertheless, the force of the film’s bleak, cynical conclusions do startle – life is entirely governed by chance and that morality and personal achievement ultimately mean nothing. Despite its flaws and what films like Anything Else or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion might have suggested, this is hardly a director happy to enter the last few decades of his life resting on past triumphs.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.