CINEMA / Mid-life Woody goes crabby

IN HIS new movie, Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen plays a content and courageous naval officer with a large family and a varied sporting life, who one day . . . sorry, my mistake. I was daydreaming. Correction: in his new movie, Woody Allen plays a New York Jewish writer with a marriage past its sell-by date and a salad of mixed troubles. In short, the usual.

What's more, it's a set menu. No one in this forceful and flustered movie has any choice; they all get it in the neck, or the heart, or the bitter end. Gabe Roth (Allen) is married to Judy (Mia Farrow) - happily enough, or so it seems for, oh, a good 90 seconds. At that point their best friends turn up and say they've split up, a shock that ripples through the rest of the plot. So Jack (Sydney Pollack) leaves Sally (Judy Davis), and finds the tofu-chewing Sam (Lysette Anthony), which proves there's something in the airhead, while Sally inches towards Michael (Liam Neeson), who already has a crush on Judy, or at least a slight squeeze, rather like what Gabe gets from his adoring student Rain (Juliette Lewis). Got it?

If this sounds busy, just wait and see what it looks like. The hand-held camera is more promiscuous than any of the characters - flirting with faces, zooming to attention, then losing interest and moving on. At one point in a conversation it even stops following the speakers and gazes at the interior decor instead, as if remembering that it's rude to stare at people for too long. Miles away from the good looks of Manhattan, this is a big surprise - even to Allen himself, I suspect, who makes the opening scene so hectic as to be unwatchable, then slowly quietens things down. It makes you wonder how far he's thought the style through, whether he has the courage of his own convention. When Godard slung his camera round Paris in the early 1960s, he looked happy to be hurried, not daring to miss the beat of the times; the jump-cut was like a new dance craze. Allen makes it lively but deadly; the emotional tempo never quite keeps up with the visual hop. It's like a middle- aged man trying to crash a teenage rave, and only making things worse by bringing his own records.

This is good news for the tee-hee brigade, of course, those viewers still licking their chops at recent comings-on in the Allen household. But the film is odd enough as it is: scared and embittered, grabbing at lost youth rather than the promise of a single young love. It's by far the most profane of Allen's movies, letting off steam in a hiss of abuse - Sally phoning Jack with a full rundown of all his bullshit, Jack keeping enough back to throw at Sam. In his wrath, he even starts reversing into parked cars - once a comic crunch for Woody himself in Annie Hall, now a demonstration of bleeding adult nerves. Watching Husbands and Wives, I realised why his serious movies feel as seasick as they do: the timing is still primed for gags, and Allen's own delivery still stammers towards a punchline - 'mmm . . . mmm . . . me? Wh . . . what kind of things?' - and when nothing arrives we get left with an embarrassing gulf, the deck of the drama suddenly tipping under our feet.

Yet for all this, the new film intrigues and shakes us with a force not felt in Allen's work for some time. Again he's collected a beefy cast, but for once they seem to kick not so much at mental misery, or the bars of marriage, as against the unseeing fate that has shut them up inside a Woody Allen movie. Liam Neeson, for instance, must have looked at his lines - bald and bare as an old tyre - and wondered how on earth they could lead anywhere; yet he arrives at one of the most convincing sketches of goodness in recent cinema, all that bulk bent to the task of decency and the urgent need for a kiss. The role could so easily have turned slimy with ingratiation, but you sense that Michael honestly doesn't care about Sally's whinges, and just wants to concentrate on the business of falling in love.

Heroic, really, because dear old Sally . . . I mean, just how close can one feel to a gooseberry bush? Though Judy Davis is lumped with the neurotic lead, she never lets it load her down; Sally's spirit may be built from shards of glass - there's a brilliance in her discontent - but tucked away behind, like a laugh at the back of the throat, is a full awareness of this woman's absurdity. Davis is the critic of her own creation - she gives it all she's got, a full tank of talent, but doesn't take it as solemnly as the director does. And she holds out for the traditional Davis make-up: the skin all drained and drawn, as if she just saw a monster, and the lips dark with blood-and-berry stains, as if she were one. It's the world of Woody Allen in one face, the professional worrier choking on a social atmosphere that she herself has fostered.

Allen's own expression gives less away, or rather gives all the old messages with a new-found weariness. Throughout the film, each character speaks to camera in a mock interview; when it comes to Gabe, he sits there in a shirt of pale brown, to match the spines of the books behind, as well as his hair and face. Other American actors have tans; Woody has arrived at much the same hue by playing too many writers - it's like looking at old parchment, ruled and pricked once too often by some stingy monk. And out of this brown study trots a succession of woolly lines, those appeals to easy thinking that have warmed every Allen project since Annie Hall. 'The insights were great,' he coos to Rain when she shows him a short story. Her desires are great too: 'to write, to fall in love, to experience passion.' What happened to travelling, honey? And how about working with sick animals?

For sheer dreaminess, a Woody Allen script is really just over the border from Capra country; less pink-cheeked ambition, more urban panic, but just as vague with thwarted longings. It's strange how sour the results can be; Husbands and Wives takes the same kinds of dancing passions that looped through Hannah and her Sisters, and turns them into a crabby-go-round. There are flashes of old bliss - the party in the Hamptons where Gabe met Judy, all tennis sweaters and citrus sunlight - and a corny clinch during a thunderstorm, with Rain playing Dido to Gabe's Aeneas. But the rest of the movie feels down on its luck and its fun, and even the closing ceremonies of togetherness feel booby-trapped, ready to burst and set the whole cycle going again. Whatever else it achieves, Husbands and Wives leaves you longing to know how Allen will take to old age: will the twitchy camera turn senile, or shrug the years away? Is there a mellow season in store, or will the brainbox carry on rattling? As someone says to Gabe, when he explains that his wife has moved out: 'Oh, you writers'.

Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a long, becalmed and hollow hull of a movie about the old order bumping into the New World. The exact moment of contact is beautifully staged - mist pulling away like a curtain to reveal the great green innocence beyond, a slow-motion foot glooping down into the mud of the shore. The foot belongs to Gerard Depardieu, whose salty, rope-haired Columbus is the best thing about the film: sailing west with half a hope of glory is exactly the kind of daft thing he'd do. Somehow Depardieu survives the film's worship of his character - Columbus the native-lover, rebel, pantheist and vegetarian. Is that really the best we can do for our heroes - bring them into line with fashionable modern ethics? I suppose it matches the absurd Vangelis score (why have electronic squawks when you've got real parrots?) and the silly lines. I particularly enjoyed the world's first cigar - 'just enjoy the flavour of the tobacco' - and the nobleman described as 'extremely motivated', which suggests he would have done better to go round the other way and discover California.

'Husbands and Wives' (15): Odeon Kensington (371 3166), Screen on the Green (226 3520), Whiteleys (792 3324); '1492: Conquest of Paradise' (15): Empire (437 1234), MGM Fulham Rd (370 2636) & Trocadero (434 0032), Whiteleys. All numbers are 071.

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste