The Best British Mysteries
Auteur Woody Allen starts his film by visually demonstrating how a "match point" (the one that wins the match) could be the result of random chance, such as when a ball hits the top frame of the net, bounces up, and then could as easily fall to either side. Will such chance decide the fate of his central figure, Chris Wilton? Therein lies the tale.
Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, ) is a tennis player who was once at
the high level of having competed against Aggassi and other champions. What
he came to understand from his years on the circuit is what seeded players
had that he didn't. Tennis championship was not the ticket to a comfortable
life that he had in mind. Now, when we meet him, he's taking his chances at
the employment level.
His fairly intact reputation goes a long way toward landing a job as a tennis
pro at a posh, restricted members-only club. What helps also is his
faultlessly suave style and a level of expression that matches the clientele.
Which is why his latest client, the very rich and affable Tom Hewett (Matthew
Goode) invites him to lunch and then, finding out that Chris loves opera
(a previously researched choice?), he invites him to Traviata
His fairly intact reputation goes a long way toward landing a job as a tennis pro at a posh, restricted members-only club. What helps also is his faultlessly suave style and a level of expression that matches the clientele. Which is why his latest client, the very rich and affable Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) invites him to lunch and then, finding out that Chris loves opera (a previously researched choice?), he invites him to Traviata, their private box, and to meet his attractive, unmarried sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) who is as sweet as a summer melon (which is not to say she looks like one!). Aha. Sparks are about to fly. But not from the indicated source.
Because later, Chris meets Tom's fiance', American actress Nola Rice, and Nola's... well, she's Scarlett Johansson, sexuality on the hoof, and it's passion at first sight for the struggling social climber. Of course, he's obliged to play his cards carefully because he wants in to this family. Likes the life style. And mom and dad Hewitt (Brian Cox and Penelope Wilton), approve of his alliance with Chloe. With little urging from their enamored daughter, dad puts her enamorata on the fast track at corporate headquarters where the lad's innate abilities swiftly justifies managerial responsibilities.
But, his obsession for Nola is a consuming force, and when he gets a chance, out in a field during a downpour rain, it's consummated. Then, not suspecting anything about his girlfriend's two-timing, Tom dumps Nola, Nola disappears, Nola reappears a year or so later, the relationship with Chris resumes in all it torrential torridness, until... Nola gets pregnant. And the story takes the story into a dark turn where Allen's match point, the lucky game winner, comes into play.
Did I say Woody Allen? This steamy crime thriller is unlike 98% of what he's done in the past (the morality-questioning "Crimes and Misdemeanors" the closest predecessor). It's not only because he isn't in it, but that it doesn't bend to the needs of comic shtick or the familiar Allen kaleidoscope of neuroses. The occasional jolt of humor is mostly of a darker nature, and except for excessive length that drags the mischief down with some needless repetition, the result is a psychologically taut and finely crafted piece of work that superbly fits the literary tastes of the country in which it's set. What with the traditions of Agatha Cristie and P.D. James, England, a country that mixes mystery with its tea, has had a fine artistic influence on the writer-director from the colonies, even allowing his high class mystery to ace them on their own court.
Irishman Rhys-Meyers recalls, for me, young, stylishly ingratiating Malcolm McDowell. Not a twin in looks, but the insouciant charm, the impregnable confidence, the conman alacrity, the slightly offputting but absorbing swagger -- all pefect for the job, and an integral part of the emotional journey he makes of his game. Johansson continues to intrigue in a role she envelops, though her command of her sexuality and self-awareness, is less assured in moments of emotional breakdown. Her attributes of a femme fatale singes the screen. Marlene Dietrich, slide your butt over.
If Emily Mortimer, a very fine actress, had a concern about being in a movie with Ms. Johansson, a scene stealer extraordinaire, she had every reason to be. We end up thinking of Mortimer much as Rhys-Meyer's Chris does -- steady on, comfortable, no sparks. Which, it should be added, fulfills the role admirably.
Supporting cast is consistently top drawer, with Brian Cox providing encouragement and naivete, charming for such a rascal in other outings and a classic enabler in these circumsances. But, then, so is everyone else at the sumptuous digs an enabler for the unfaithful son-in-law: Goode, Mortimer, even the staff of servants.
A servant of his own tradition Woody Allen is not, and with this new game he wins back the respect he's lost in his last few tournaments.
The Soundtrack Album