Why 'Cassandra's Dream' is turning out to be Woody Allen's nightmare

In his latest film, premiered at the Venice Film Festival yesterday, the veteran American director abandons his native New York for the unfamiliar streets – and accents – of London. Geoffrey Macnab wonders whether something got lost in translation
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The Independent Culture

Woody Allen's new feature Cassandra's Dream premiered in Venice yesterday.

To many critics, it seemed feeble and dispiriting fare – the work of an old master in decline.

A stuttering drama about two working-class London brothers (played by Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor) who lose their moral compass and end up committing a deed which damns them, with hardly a joke in sight.

Allen had recruited some formidable collaborators – including the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond and the composer Philip Glass – but there was a sense that even they were working at half-throttle.

When Allen came on stage for his press conference in Venice's Casino yesterday, he cut a strangely fragile and melancholic figure. Flanked by young British actress Hayley Attwell and the two males stars McGregor and Farrell, he sat there silently in his headphones, waiting for an interminable opening question from an Italian journalist to be translated into English.

When he finally did speak, his voice sounded faint.

In Italy, as in France, Allen is still adored. He is still the "maestro," even if his films are increasingly lacking in the comic zest and ingenuity that once characterised them.

The response he was given in Venice yesterday was gentle and solicitous. It was as if a beloved elderly relative had come to town. Sure enough, there was at least one Italian journalist ready to stand up and congratulate him on his latest "masterpiece," seemingly oblivious to the fact that this is surely one of his weakest films. No curve balls were thrown in his direction.

No one picked up on the slack tempo of Cassandra's Dream, its bizarrely genteel portrayal of London, (at times, the film resembles an episode of EastEnders) or its dramatic lacunae.

No one joked about Farrell and McGregor's Dick Van Dyke-like London accents or the way they behave like London's answer to Biff and Happy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic play, Death Of A Salesman.

Allen's first remarks at the press conference, which didn't seem to be intended as a joke, were greeted with gales of laughter anyway.

It wasn't so much that he had said something funny as that the audience was simply happy to hear those familiar, whining New York tones and to see the little man in the spectacles again.

"It ( Cassandra's Dream) is simply a story of some very nice young people who get caught up because of their weaknesses and ambitions in a tragic situation," he explained.

"They mean well. They were raised decently, but it turns out that their own events and own actions bring them to a tragic demise at the end of the movie."

In some ways, even if it is short on humour and is set in London, Cassandra's Dream is a typical Allen movie. As in Crimes And Misdemeanours, it is a story about death and guilt.

Hayley Attwell's precocious and siren-like young actress Angela is yet another of those beautiful ingénues who fill his work.

The close-knit London family isn't so different from the equally close-knit New York families he has portrayed in earlier, autobiographical films like Radio Days. As played by Tom Wilkinson, the mysterious and wealthy Uncle Howard could almost be mistaken for one of those supercilious New Yorkers Tony Roberts used to play in his films.

On one hand, Allen is revisiting his past in Cassandra's Dream. On the other, he is clearly keen to escape it. His is a familiar tale of the clown determined to be taken seriously.

"I have always been interested in murder and the dark side of drama and tragedy," he explained in that lugubrious voice. "Murder is just one of the tools that playwrights and filmmakers have used for centuries to elucidate their points, whether it was Greek tragedy or Shakespeare or going right on through suicides in Arthur Miller plays. The taking of life is a very, very dramatic action and extremely interesting to me."

Cassandra's Dream is different from most of his work in that the key relationship is not between a man and a woman, but between the two brothers. "I wanted to make the main plot between men," he said.

Allen elicits likeable but strangely idiosyncratic and lightweight performances from Farrell and McGregor. The film may be intended as a tragedy but there is little depth or real darkness to it.

Throughout Allen's career, the tension between his desire to tackle weighty themes and his sense of the absurdity of highbrow culture has yielded many of his best jokes. Whether through his old one-liners about cheating in metaphysics exams (by staring into the other guy's soul) or those deliciously toe-curling scenes in his films when he bluffs his way round Manhattan art galleries or queues up to see films like The Sorrow And The Pity, he has often mocked his own pretensions.

Ever since he made his Ingmar Bergman pastiche Interiors, critics have been complaining that his movies don't work without the jokes.

Still, at this stage of his career, he clearly feels he can do what he wants. He likes to make a film a year. ("It's what I do".) One of his petty hobbies is exploring guilt. Often, in the past, he has done it so humorously.

Now, in Cassandra's Dream, he wants to do it in deadly earnest. The two brothers in the film experience guilt in very different ways. For McGregor, it is something he can simply shrug off as he plans for a glittering future. For Farrell's character, though, it is all-consuming and impossible to escape.

Allen loves London but there is little sign that he understands the rhythm or subcultures of the city in the same way that he does those of New York. Yesterday, he was fulsome in his praise of the city and expressed the desire to work there yet again.

"I certainly would love to make another film in London. It is a truly seductive place in which to work because it is a very nice place to live for the long period of time it takes to make the film."

Allen even likes London's weather, which is cooler than in New York and provides plenty of the grey, cloud-filled skies that he likes to photograph.

It's questionable, though, whether London (or Europe) is good for his work.

The veteran director is at present engaged on his own movie tour round Europe. Having made three films in London, he has just completed shooting a new comedy drama (as yet untitled) in Barcelona. His reputation goes before him.

City authorities will bend over backwards to help him shoot his movies in their backyards. For the sake of his work, though, one wishes they would put up No Entry zones and make him hurry back to New York, where all his best work has been done.

McGregor and Farrell both praised Allen fulsomely, but their accounts of working with him hint at why, perhaps, Cassandra's Dream seemed so under-realised. To put it bluntly, Allen may have made the film too quickly and too easily.

"Most of the scenes play out in a single frame," McGregor explained. "There is a lot of dialogue. There are not many takes – it's wonderful. You get home at 4.30pm in the afternoon. You can have a life."

So what now for Allen? There is no sign that he is going to re-think his work methods. For as long as he is able, he seems determined to continue churning out a film a year. If inspiration is running dry, there are always offshoots from older projects that he can customise and make new film scripts from.

Long before Cassandra's Dream, he had written a play about a New York family that was very dependent on a mysterious uncle. To make the movie, he brought the uncle back to life.

"I thought it was interesting to base all your life and dreams on a generous family member and get ready to ask a favour and then, when that family member comes, he asks you for the favour before you can ask him. He is the one that really needs the favour and his favour is a really terrible one, a tragic one."

The sense yesterday was of a filmmaker steeped in gloom beginning to lose his way. His world view is clearly bleak.

Asked whether tragedy and comedy co-exist in life, he replied a little forlornly: "I have always felt that life itself is a tremendously tragic event, a real mess. It has comic moments in it. There are moments of pleasure and moments that are amusing but basically it is ... tragic.

"I have always wanted to be a tragic writer – a writer of tragic material.

"It just so happened that my most obvious strengths have been comic. I was always one of those comic people who – not that I wanted to play Hamlet – but I always wanted to write tragic things. I am finally getting the chance to do so now that I am getting older."

It is remarks like these that make you want to shake Allen and tell him to lighten up.

He spoke yesterday of his childhood love of Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, but he seems in danger of forgetting just why he liked them so much – namely that they made him laugh.

Allen's highs and lows

During his 40-year career, Allen has won three Academy Awards and been nominated 21 times. Six of those were for directing

Annie Hall in 1977 won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actress

He won the César Award for Best Foreign Film for Manhattan in 1980 and the second in 1986 for The Purple Rose of Cairo, of which he also received a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay

Since then, Allen has received a number of lifetime achievement awards including the Directors Guild of America including the Palme des Palmes and a special lifetime achievement award granted by the Cannes Festival in 2002

His 2000 comedy, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, cost $26m (£13m) to make but was panned by the critics and failed to cover its costs at the box office

Despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, crime caper

Small Time Crooks was condemned by aficionados of his surreal humour

Though it starred Scarlett Johansson, left, London-based Match Point (2005) received only lukewarm praise from critics and was shunned by audiences who stayed at home