Woody Allen has more than a stroke of good luck with Match Point, his 36th and one of his most daring films to date.
The 70-year-old writer/director has the backing of the BBC on this one with a departure for him using London instead of his usual Big Apple setting. His filmmaking and writing gradually hit a new dramatic high. Or maybe he's trying to reinvent himself.
He balanced comedy and tragedy quite well with a fine lead performance by Radha Mitchell in Melinda & Melinda. Here, he knows how to get the most from a lesser name cast in balancing modern art, opera, and tennis that most approximates his narrative for Crimes & Misdemeanors.
A tennis volley with a ball hitting the top of the net opens the film as the protagonist notes that "with a little luck" it may or may not go forward.
Allen's able cast is lead by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (Bend It Like Beckham) as former tennis pro Chris Wilton whose Irish lad is into Dostoevsky. As one is drawn into this operatic, later taut tale, the allusions to tennis and works like "Crime & Punishment" and "A Raisin In The Sun" resonate in a shrewd, revelatory way.
At an elegant London country club, Chris finds a position as an instructor and has a nice camraderie with opulent client Tom Hewitt (Matthew Goode). Tom introduces him into the world of opera. Chris begins to date Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer of Dear Frankie). But, this relationship is complicated by the wild card character sensually acted by Scarlett Johansson. Her fledging actress Nola Rice is the bombshell blonde who is Tom's fiancee.
The interplay between Rhys-Meyers and Johansson and their characters' motivations drive the film in bright, unexpected ways and they have strong on-screen chemistry. Not just from a torrid scene in wheat during a thunderstorm after Nola is a little drunk. Something will have to give as Chris is on the track to corporate success thanks to Chloe's dad (Brian Cox of Red Eye). Allen brings more intrigue to the slow-setting table once Chris weds Chloe and feels her overwhelming need to start a family.
Penelope Wilton of Calendar Girls is Mrs. Hewitt who does all she can to keep Tom from marrying outside of his class. And it all begins to connect with a deep mordant ramification when it comes to doing the right thing and being well-planned.
Nola will affect Chris and Chloe about a year later employed in a boutique while still trying to forge an acting career. Chris's attraction to this dysfunctionally meek, depressed, yet smoldering young woman will finally lead to a dark philosophical climax that might prove nagging to some.
It's something to say that through all of the understated wit without the one-liners, Allen makes the underpinnings bounce just right when it comes to cold-hearted behavior and what should come from it.
His new locale is given vitality from the adroit lensing of Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth) and the music from Verdi exquisitely fits in with the variations from the starting point. And, he gets confident performances from Rhys-Meyers and Johansson who impact the English atmosphere with the ambition and passion Chris and Nola desire. Mortimer hits the nail on a woman who knows what she wants.
While Johansson endows vulnerability as well as cunning, Rhys-Meyers does a star-making turn as one cares about what will happen to him as repugnant as even an Allen lead. And, in this sophisticated, if somewhat ambiguous ruthless tale, Chris isn't out to try and showcase some of Allen's typical angst. "It's scary to think so much of life is out of one's control," but this Match is an artistic, cerebral point that isn't saved by dumb luck.