Film Studies: Woody Allen's back - and he's grown up at last

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The Independent Culture

Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) has been a pretty good tennis player, if never able to break clear of that mob of quarter-finalists - he's more a Tim Henman than a Roger Federer. What does that entail? Well, something in a Henman has to get used to disappointing the enormous sentimental support that rallies behind him every June. And Wilton is weak. We sense this before we really know him. He is a tennis player like Guy Haines (Farley Granger) in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, a film that guessed the good-looking guy with the classy forehand might just be capable of murder, or thinking about it, if you pressured his backhand.

And so begins Match Point, maybe the most cool, astringent and disturbing film Woody Allen (pictured) has ever made. Chris is the pro at a very social London club, and that's where he picks up Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode) as a pupil. Tom doesn't care much about tennis, and it is part of Chris's early downfall that he has to be polite to such people. For Tom is the son of a business tycoon (Brian Cox); he is also rich, handsome, self-satisfied and amused to see Chris sweat.

But when Tom mentions opera, Chris says, "Oh yes, opera - I like that." He is the classic climber, trying to pull himself upwards in a world that regards him as a runner-up. So Chris shares the family box at Covent Garden. He meets Tom's sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer), and he meets Tom's sulky, sultry fiancée, Nola (Scarlett Johansson), an American actress who is proving that she can be a failure in Britain, too.

Chris has aspirations beyond the opera: he reads Dostoyevsky, and if Tom were better educated he'd see the warning sign. We see it on Chris's face - greedy, sensual, envious, hurt, a loser's face, and a mind that is already reading Crime and Punishment and wondering if he might not beat the advertised equation. It's absolutely natural that Chris notices and respects the unoccupied appetites and self-destructive energies in the moody Nola. And she notices him, too - this is the first part she's won, and alas, for a while she doesn't see the tragic terminus in her script.

I understand that there are film critics from England who find the set-up in Match Point fanciful. It's no longer possible, they say, to get ahead in business with the kind of paternal boost that Daddy can offer. And, really, these people have country houses and London homes that suggest plutocracy, as opposed to mere wealth. I have to say that this didn't trouble me at all: I think the clout of money and class still works as it always has done. I found no problem in seeing this cold-blooded tale of getting ahead and then cutting the head off as coming from reality.

Maybe I was transfixed by the new maturity evident in Woody Allen as he reaches the age of 70. For nearly a decade, Woody has been marking time with lightweight pictures. It feels an age since Stardust Memories, Radio Days, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Crimes and Misdemeanors, films in which the people make dreadful but very human mistakes, and in which the world is a game played without safeguard or safety nets. At 70, somehow, Woody Allen has found the courage or the encouragement to let his misanthropy show through clearly, without veil or throwaway smile.

Match Point is Dostoyevskyan: Chris and Nola fall in love - no matter that Chris is in the process of marrying Chloe. The potential for damage is all around, but no one can overcome the lure of immediate sensual pleasure. Chloe becomes whiney, her sweetness curdling, as she fails to get pregnant. Whereas, of course, Chris has no trouble in impregnating Nola - this is a view of romantic fate and luck in which passion knows no impediment. So what is Chris going to do? Did I mention that it's a murder story?

Such delicate material as this needs precise control, and I don't think I've ever felt the reins in an Allen film so taut. There is a narrative suspense here that he has rarely possessed, or risked. It is so great that Match Point is the first film I've seen this year that positively requires a sequel (it would not be too hard, the one lead person who dies here could come back as a questioning sibling). And whereas Allen often merely flirts with his own starry players, he manages to make Rhys-Meyers and Johansson as sympathetic as they are odious. Altogether, this is a film of real ambition, not just the Woody film for this season. It could win Best Picture - the first such prize for Allen since Annie Hall in 1977.

'Match Point' is out on 6 January