Cassandra's Dream is the new Woody Allen film. Like 2005's Match Point, it's a London-set drama that asks whether an ordinary man could get away with murder, but this time the story concerns cockneys, not aristocrats, which, in Woody-world, means more floral wallpaper and less oak panelling.
Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star as two brothers in desperate need of money. Farrell has to pay off his gambling debts in a hurry, while McGregor wants to finance a property deal, so he can whisk his actress girlfriend, Hayley Atwell, off to California. The answer to their prayers could be their rich uncle, Tom Wilkinson, a renowned cosmetic surgeon. But Wilkinson's business has hit its own bumps in the road. The testimony of a former colleague, Phil Davis, could land him in jail, so he pays his nephews to make Davis disappear.
I'm a devout Woody-worshipper, and there were times watching Cassandra's Dream when I was impressed that he was exploring such dark and serious themes, and in a more intense, streamlined manner than he did in Match Point. But at other times I realised that if it were an episode of EastEnders I'd be laughing it off the screen. It's not that the characters don't talk like Londoners. It's more that they don't talk like human beings. They're always explaining things that everyone in the room would already knows, and they keep repeating the name of the person they're talking to. The last time I heard dialogue like that was in a financial services advert on daytime TV.
Tom Wilkinson lends authority and urgency to his role, and Sally Hawkins, the star of Mike Leigh's Happy Go Lucky, improvises a small part into a living, breathing character, just as Matthew Goode did in Match Point. But most of the lines go to McGregor and Farrell, and it's painful to hear their not-quite-cockney accents as they struggle through the not-quite-cockney dialogue. It's a film that makes you want to jot "sloppy" and "must try harder" in the margins.
Allen is well known for doing no more than a few takes of each shot before he packs up and moves on to the next one, and in Cassandra's Dream it shows. He lets the actors stumble over their lines, and there's even a moment when the camera slips out of focus. It's exasperating, because it wouldn't have taken many more days' work on the screenplay or on the set to turn Cassandra's Dream into a powerful film. Instead, it seems as if Allen wrote a first draft, and then filmed the first rehearsal.