For people who've been around a while, and who know and love film, 2005 was a sort of bittersweet year. On one hand, Ingmar Bergman emerged from the shadows with Saraband, only to announce that it would be his final work. Now, boys and girls, this is a man who was regarded as a god back in those ancient days when cinema was considered an art form and not just something rappers and pop singers branch out into once their careers have taken off. History is measured by certain milestones, and the close of a career like Bergman's is such a landmark moment.
As Bergman receded back into the shadows, however, Woody Allen, a filmmaker famously influenced by the Swedish director, did the last thing his public expected. At 70 the director ended a streak of lightweight, minor releases and unveiled a philosophical drama as provocative and accomplished as any movie he has made. Match Point will leave many a moviegoer wistful for the days when motion pictures routinely contained things such as social conscience, psychological depth and -- are you sitting down? -- ideas as opposed to special effects.
An entire generation knows Allen chiefly as a result of the tabloid attention he received when he left Mia Farrow in 1992 for her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. This is the movie that will make clear to these youngsters why Woody Allen already had been considered a cultural icon for decades.
"The man who said, 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life," declares Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the opening sequence. "People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control."
The character Rhys-Meyers plays is very lucky indeed. A former professional tennis player from a working-class Irish background, Chris Wilton has left the touring life behind and taken a job giving lessons at a private London club. It is his good fortune, almost as soon as he arrives, to be introduced to the son of a wealthy businessman and, after only a session or two, to be invited to join the fellow and his family at the opera and at their country estate. As Tom Hewett, Matthew Goode is a breezy, trusting, thoroughly likable chap who's always making cocktails and is likely to bring to mind a young Jeremy Irons. He's also betrothed to a sultry American played by Scarlett Johansson.
Rhys-Meyers insinuates himself into the family by pretending to be head-over-heels for his friend's sister (Emily Mortimer), a sweet but dullish young woman, while the truth is, he has an atomic case of the hots for Johansson. This condition persists after Rhys-Meyers and Mortimer tie the knot. In fact, it grows more serious. Eventually, they have an affair.
At this point, things seem to be going swimmingly for the socially ambitious young man. His father-in-law (Brian Cox) has set him up with a designer office, expense account and chauffeured Jag. The newlyweds have moved into an elegant loft the old man also thoughtfully subsidized. But, just when Wilton's luck appears to be running the hottest, it turns momentarily ice-cold. Though his wife is desperate to have a baby, guess which woman becomes pregnant.
What is Wilton to do? It doesn't take him long to conclude that it's not in his interest to alienate the loving, generous Hewetts. There's not a whole lot of soul to search in his case, so, faster than you can say A Place in the Sun, he sets in motion a chain of events worthy of Hitchcock. The only question, really, is whether luck will be on his side in the aftermath.
Match Point is Allen's deepest, darkest creation since 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors and, in fact, explores a good deal of the same moral territory. In the earlier film, Martin Landau wrestled with the cosmic ramifications of arranging for a mistress' disposal. While the picture was greatly admired, Allen always felt he blew it. "I so regretted that I had my comic story in there," he told Entertainment Weekly in December. "I thought, my God, if I had made this film just about Marty and his predicament, it would have been so much better . . . I felt that it ratcheted down in substance instantly."
Sixteen years later, he has made the movie he wished he'd made back then. The writer-director is at the absolute top of his form. Though shot in London with a primarily British cast, the film feels more like a golden-era Woody Allen picture than any he's produced in years. Old recordings of Italian opera provide the soundtrack for the tragedy. Characters play things out against a backdrop of art museums and moviehouses. Human purpose, cosmic justice and love are sought but prove elusive. There's a moment in the movie when the young man considers his actions and, for an instant, hopes that he'll be caught. After all, he reflects, his apprehension would offer "some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning."
With his 36th film, Allen offers hope for the possibility of meaning as well; the possibility that one of the most celebrated artists of our age hasn't finished his personal search quite yet, and that every now and then a movie with the old Allen touch might still make its way to the Cineplex.