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
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
Arts and Entertainment
Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, wrote a blog post attacking the app and questioning its apparent 'strong Christian bias'
Arts and Entertainment
Leading light: Sharma in London

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
Brooke Magnanti believes her reputation has been damaged by the claim
Arts and Entertainment
A large fire has broken out in London's historic Battersea Arts Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Orla Brady as Anne Meredith, MyAnna Buring as Elizabeth Quinn and Joanna Vanderham as Katherine McVitie in Banished
tvReview: Despite the gritty setting, this drama is as fluffy and soppy as a soap opera
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and co-director Richard Glatzer, standing, on the set during the filming of ‘Still Alice’ in New York
Arts and Entertainment
Great British Sewing Bee finalist Matt Chapple
tvReview: He wowed the judges with an avant garde dress
Arts and Entertainment
Driven to the edge: 'Top Gear' producer Oisin Tymon is said to have had a row with Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Nazi officer Matthias Schoenaerts embarks on an affair with married French woman Michelle Williams in 'Suite Francaise'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Prime movers: Caitriona Balfe (centre) and the cast of Outlander
Feasting with panthers: Keynes
Arts and Entertainment
Strung out: Mumford & Sons
Arts and Entertainment
Avant-garde: Bjork
Arts and Entertainment
Despite a decade of reform, prosecutions and convictions of rape has remained consistently low
arts + entsAcademic and author Joanna Bourke in warning to arts world
Arts and Entertainment
Electro Velvet, made up of Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas, will represent the UK at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
    Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

    Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

    A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
    Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

    Election 2015

    Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May
    Countdown to the election: Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear as the SNP target his Commons seat

    Operation Save Danny Alexander shifts into high gear

    The Chief Secretary to the Treasury didn’t forget his Highland roots in the Budget. But the SNP is after his Commons seat
    The US economy is under threat because of its neglected infrastructure

    The US is getting frayed at the edges

    Public spending on infrastructure is only half of Europe’s, and some say the nation’s very prosperity is threatened, says Rupert Cornwell
    Mad Men final episodes: Museum exhibition just part of the hoopla greeting end of 1960s-set TV hit

    New Yorkers raise a glass to Mad Men

    A museum exhibition is just part of the hoopla greeting the final run of the 1960s-set TV hit
    Land speed record: British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    British-built hybrid rocket car aims to be the fastest on Earth

    Bloodhound SSC will attempt to set a new standard in South Africa's Kalahari desert
    Housebuilders go back to basics by using traditional methods and materials

    Housebuilders go back to basics - throwing mud at the wall until it sticks

    Traditional materials are ticking all the construction boxes: they are cheap, green – and anyone can use them
    Daniel Brühl: 'When you have success abroad, you become a traitor. Envy is very German'

    Daniel Brühl: 'Envy is very German'

    He's got stick for his golden acting career and for his beloved restaurant - but Daniel Brühl is staying put in Berlin (where at least the grannies love him)
    How Leica transformed photography for ever: Celebrating 100 years of the famous camera

    Celebrating 100 years of Leica

    A new book reveals how this elegant, lightweight box of tricks would transform the way we saw life on the street and in fashion, on the battlefield and across the world