Ambition, Passion and Luck

A dangerous, unstable combination

MATCH POINT: Written and directed by Woody Allen. Produced by Letty Aronson, Gareth Wiley, Lucy Darwin. Executive producers Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe, Stephen Tenenbaum. Cinematography, Remi Adefarasin. Production design, Jim Clay. Editor, Alisa Lepselter. Costume design, Jill Taylor. Starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Matthew Goode. With Brian Cox, Penelope Wilton. BBC Films. DreamWorks, 2005. R. 124 minutes.

Early in Woody Allen’s terrific upscale noir, a narrator gives the audience a little lecture about luck. Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) believes in luck, fervently, and with good cause. A former professional tennis player, Chris moves to London, where luckily he lands a job teaching tennis at a posh club (the Queen’s Club). In a stroke of good luck, Chris hits it off with his first student, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), a good-natured, generous, very rich young man.

Irish Chris is familiar with money problems, and though Tom has none, they discover a mutual love of opera. Tom invites Chris to his family’s box at the Royal Opera House, where he meets the family. Chris impresses the family’s kindly patriarch, Alec Hewett (Brian Cox), and Tom’s mother, Eleanor (Penelope Wilton). Meanwhile Chloe (Emily Mortimer) is quite taken by her brother’s handsome new friend and quickly makes an appointment for tennis lessons. Chris is dazzled by Tom’s fiancée, the gorgeous American, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson).

Ah, I thought, another sophisticated Allen romantic comedy set among the upper crust of London instead of New York but with similar class-related misunderstandings, inappropriate attractions, broken hearts and the threat of scandal. But no. It’s nothing that innocent, because our man Chris is a piece of work. He cares for and marries Chloe, but he lusts for sexy Nola, and who can blame him?

How Chris resolves his conflicted desires is worthy of writer Patricia Highsmith, whose work was adapted for the screen by Anthony Minghella in 1998’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Match Point is not derivative, and it is Allen’s best work in years. The last Allen movie I really loved was 1997’s withering comedy about a tell-all writer, Deconstructing Harry. You probably have a favorite, too, but I would be surprised if it were more recent than mine.

I most admire Match Point because Woody doesn’t act in it, first, and secondly, we don’t know the inner thoughts or feelings of any character. We see what they do, and that’s it. No neurotic psycho babble, no philosophical naval gazing, no angst, just straight-up family and relationship dynamics such as passion, betrayal, frustration and insecurity. You may be surprised by where the film goes, but you’ll recognize the emotions. Even if you hate the film, you can’t dismiss it. Tailored and mannered as any of Allen’s films, it is beautifully crafted. And Enrico Caruso’s operatic singing is always there to remind us this is an opera, a grand melodrama set to music.

Rhys Meyers (Bend it Like Beckham, Vanity Fair) creates an enigmatic character in Chris, who describes himself as competitive and aggressive when he beats Nola playing ping-pong. Chris keeps his darker side buttoned up and chooses passivity over conflict. But ambition pulses beneath his calm, possessed exterior. Rhys Meyers proves himself an actor with this performance.

Mortimer plays Chloe as her daddy’s darling girl with no experience of life’s difficulties. She is a fount of good-will, patient with her husband’s small failings, always affectionate. Mortimer takes Chloe seriously, however. She is unspoiled, happy and open with her feelings. Only when the desire to conceive a baby preoccupies her do we get a small glimpse into Chloe’s demanding side.

Surprisingly, the whole Hewett family comes off pretty well, except for Eleanor (Wilton) who just can’t stand for Tom (Goode) to marry an aspiring actress too sexy for her own good. Tom doesn’t seem bothered over the tension between Nola and his mother, but he is. Goode’s acting is subtle. Our peek at Tom’s annoyance suggests his casual, easy going persona is not all there is to the man.

Nola is the least developed character, but I expected Johansson to flesh her out, make her more likable, more sympathetic. Nola is so desirable she expects men to want her, yet we see a bit of hardness in her, particularly later in the film. She speaks her mind, expresses her anger, thinks about what’s at stake. And yet, she fails to move me.

An excellent film, Match Point is now playing at the Bijou. Very highest recommendations.

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