And still it comes, the annual Woody Allen film, and the debate starts again (at least among the few people who still watch them) as to whether the latest is worse than the previous, or slightly better, or merely the same depressing evidence of a director who seems to have forgotten why he made films in the first place. As it happens, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger does mark a minor improvement, but only because his last film was the dismally unfunny Whatever Works. In the long run it will be bracketed under Allen's regrettable series of London misadventures that include Match Point and Cassandra's Dream.
What's notably different about this one is the all-round quality of the ensemble. Mystifyingly, great actors still want to work for Allen, and here Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin lead the line as an unhappily married couple living in London. She, Sally, has an unspoken crush on her gallery-owner boss, Greg (Antonio Banderas). He, Roy, is a stalled novelist who's been living off her and anxiously awaiting the verdict from his publisher on the new book. In the meantime, he gazes through his bedroom window at a beautiful musician, Dia (Freida Pinto), who lives in the building opposite; unbelievably, this heavy-gutted lout manages to score a lunch date with her.
A narrator alerts us at the outset that this tale is (to quote Macbeth) "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". I suppose we should be thankful for the warning, though Allen might have chosen better with a line from Julius Caesar, the one that goes, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves". For this film's philosophical viewpoint, if it can so be called, is that we are responsible for our own happiness or misfortune, and that seeking solace in otherworldly elements is pure folly. That "fault" is most keenly represented in Sally's tippling mother Helena (Gemma Jones), who often drops by to bemoan her husband's abandonment and report the latest news from a fortune-teller she's devoted to: so anxious and suggestible has she become that she swallows any old guff about auras and reincarnation and even the line about meeting "a tall dark stranger".
Her straying husband, Alfie, is played by Anthony Hopkins as a classic deluded older man who thinks he can cheat age by romancing a much younger woman. Unfortunately, that woman is Charmaine (Lucy Punch), a gold-digging blonde hooker so crudely drawn one might almost suspect Allen of misogyny. In return for sex (he's popping Viagra like mad) and the promise of a child, Alfie spoils her with furs, jewellery and a fabulous apartment. The watchfulness and intelligence in Hopkins's eyes make rather a nonsense of his character, who's evidently spent a lifetime getting rich only to squander his wealth in short order. Roy, the failing writer, is another faulty creation, a man who can crassly admit to a woman that he's been spying on her and still gets lucky. On their first date, Dia lets slip that her father is an eminent literary figure (he translates Eastern European fiction), yet Roy doesn't even bother asking his name. Later, introducing her to his pals in the pub, he says, "I've been exploring the erogenous zones of this delightful creature", and you can hardly stop yourself thinking: eeeew. Does Allen know how horrible that line sounds? I'm not sure he does, otherwise he'd write an appropriate comeback for Dia, or for one of his pals.
The only one of the cast who wins out against the air of unreality is Naomi Watts, her accent a note-perfect estuarial London. Watts, who may have a claim to be the best actor in movies at the moment, does exasperation in a way that remains unusually watchable – and unexasperating – and she plays her scenes opposite Banderas with just the right mixture of cautious flirtation and hopefulness. We gain a very affecting impression of a woman who's exhausted a lifelong sympathy on weaklings – her mother, her husband – and now seeks a grown-up relationship with a man who knows his own mind. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger loses us long before the end in a flurry of plot developments – an outrageous plagiarism, the discovery of an infidelity, even a seance – with which Allen keeps the drama artificially alive, while the portrait of our capital city suggests indifference to its depth and texture. It is a typical late Woody Allen picture, stilted, lightly cynical, dramatically inert, but will linger in the memory for Watts's turn.
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